The Countess and the Mogul: Bad Divorce Law

Posted on April 1st, 2009 by Katherine Franke

Reform of divorce laws in light of the ways in which many women end up much worse off than their ex-husbands after divorce remains a huge problem for those of us concerned about Gender Justice.

But consider the current divorce case in the news of Marie Douglas-David, the 37 year-old woman who in 2002 douglas-davidmarried George David, a 67 year-old Connecticut executive who has a reported net worth of $329 million.  Prior to the marriage Douglas-Davis was an asset manager at Lazard Asset Management (and, um, a Swedish countess) who quit her job when she married David so that she could travel and entertain with him.

When the relationship hit the rocks after two years (evidently they both had affairs – he with a woman he met at a flower shop and she with a Swedish fencing champion) they entered into a post-nuptial agreement to the effect that upon dissolution of the marriage Marie would receive a $43 million settlement.  According to the Huffington Post, “Douglas-David wants the agreement invalidated. She’s asking to be awarded about $100 million in cash and stock, plus $130,000 a month in alimony.”  She maintains that her essential weekly expenses include $250 for a personal trainer, $700 for limousine services, $4,500 for clothes, $1,000 for hair and skin treatments, $1,500 for restaurants and entertainment, $2,209 for her personal assistant, $1,570 for horse care, $600 for flowers and $8,000 for travel.  In case you missed it, these are expenses per week.  (To be fair, he claims ten times as much in weekly expense: Clothes $2,500, Yacht maintenance $95,943, Eating out $1,773, Travel $7,491, Charities $18,042, Entertainment $7,125, Wife’s residences $67,12.  Who can’t relate to the crushing burden of the weekly “yacht maintenance” bill?  Source for these numbers. )

This case makes me crazy.

When Marie Douglas married George David she seems to have morphed from a competent, even shrewd, investment banker into a vulnerable, defenseless wife who was a victim of her husband’s power and prestige. Her lawyer has argued in court that she thought she was in “a loving, sound marriage” until she found e-mails disclosing an affair between her husband and a younger woman.  Shocking, shocking!  (Oh wait, George had a previous wife with whom he had had three children, and he met Marie when she, a woman less than half his age, invested in George’s business on behalf of Lazard.  Maybe the whole “younger woman-thing” is not so shocking.)

Marie, a woman with a serious, lucrative and successful career, junked it all when she met George, more than twice her age, and became a kept housewife.  In the divorce lawsuit Marie maintains that she shouldn’t be held to the terms of the $43 million post-nup.  Her lawyer argued in his opening statement to the judge that George coerced her to sign it by preying upon her fears of being divorced and childless.  “He put a [figurative] gun to the back of her head.”

Oh please.

These sorts of cases gain lots of media attention and they undermine the problem of equity in divorce cases between regular people whom Weitzman studies in her book, The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America.  As a practical matter in most divorces, the less privileged party – usually the wife – walks away impoverished, or substantially less well off, than the more privileged party – usually the husband. This data hasn’t changed substantially since 1985, when she did her research.

When a woman such as Marie Douglas-David quits her job as an investment banker to become a wife – not only in the legal sense, but in the social sense (the servant to David’s professional and social life) – she’s not an absolute victim.  She’s making a choice, and I must add, a bad choice.  She did so at her peril.  There is, as my law & economics colleagues would call it, a moral hazard problem here: to relieve Marie Douglass-David of any responsibility for her own support, because she was, after all, George David’s wife, is to solidify women as the dependents of men.  They are the breadwinners, we are the arm candy and trophy wives.  They belong in the wage labor market, we belong at home with the kids. We are the mommies, they are the masters of the universe.

This isn’t the sort of case where the couple marries young, they make a deal that they’ll invest in his career first, hers second, and then he doesn’t live up the deal and she’s left with a bunch of sunk costs – to borrow again ideas from economists.  Or where they decide that it makes most sense for her to stay home and take care of the kids since, after all, he’s able to earn more given that he’s a man and they only need one wage to live on (a middle class scenario, that leaves out many, many families/couples that can’t afford to live on one wage).

No.  This was a woman, a countess even, who had a very lucrative career when she met her husband, indeed met her future husband, a client, at the office.

The lesson from the Douglas-David divorce: why would any woman want to be a wife?  You become a withered simalcrum of your former independent agentic self: unable to support yourself, vulnerable given your dependency on your husband’s wealth and support, and somehow exploitable by the prospect of being “divorced and childless.”

How can we avoid the even worse message this case delivers: What really is the difference between cashing out two years of marriage to a mogul as legalized prostitution?  How can we make a principled distinction between what she’s demanding and front pay?

Remind me why any woman would want to be a wife?

– Katherine Franke


  1. Maybe you’re looking at this one particular marriage a bit too callously.

    David-Douglas was no housewife, and in no way compares to the “typical” divorce scenario.

    David-Douglas chose to end one career to begin a new career – one that demands a lifestyle of a millionaire’s wife, which comes at an exorbitant cost.

    Perhaps in this post-industrial age where women have a choice to develop a career or stay at home, we need to 1) recognize there is a gray matter between the two choices, and 2) define it.

    With wealthy households like those “real houswives” we watch on Bravo (who hire all the domestic help they need in order to shop and plan charity events), we need to recognize they are not the traditional housewives – maintaining their lifestyle is their job.

    So, in all fairness, David-Douglas has the right to demand from her husband all the alimony and compensation for expenses. Ultimately, she’s demanding a severance package.

    Love the blog!

    a fellow feminist

  2. Jamie – point very well taken. You’re right about the model of “wife” applying in a different way in case such as this. Nice way to put it. But what does, or should, the severance package entail in this sort of context? A payout/golden handshake/parachute sure. But a life-long standard of living that her “job” as wife of David vested? That’s more than most severance packages offer. Your point raises the question of whether the $43 million post-nup was a fair deal for her, but we need to say more about how the “duty to support” in the form of alimony fits in the work/severance paradigm.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.


  3. You ask why any successfull professional woman would want to become a wife. The answer is: because most women can still make much more money that way than by being gainfully employed.
    Same thing for prostitutes and “sex workers”: you still make a heck of a lot more money in those occupations than by being a secretary or a salesgirl.
    Men still have most of the power and money in our society, and the quickest way to both, even if you are covered with diplomas, smart and highly qualified, is still through them.
    When women own 50% of all properties and 50% of CEOs are women, this will change. In the meantime, and being realistic, men are still the quickest ticket to wealth and power.

  4. Remind me why any woman would want to be a wife?

    I wanna know too!!

    I guess marriage works pretty much like religion. Most people know it doesn’t work too well yet most people still want it because it feels like the right thing to do. It’s gonna take us a while, like several hundreds years, to get rid of these illusions.

    Also I disagree that wealth and power are the main reasons why women wanna get married. Ah, come on. MOST of the married men are by no means powerful and wealthy by any standard. In fact, my straight female friends sometimes have to downplay their successes so that their husbands\boyfriends don’t feel threatened. I’m not sure if my experience here is representative, but there’s gotta be something other than wealth and power that drives women to tie the knot.

    I’m a college student from mainland China. I’ve been reading your blog for a while. I’m a huge fan. Coming from a place where LGBT people are basically invisible, it’s very inspiring to see that there are so many brilliant people out there working on LGBT rights and gender equality.

  5. i had this article and thought of sharing it on your blog.

    What’s causing so many marriages, old and new, to founder these days?
    Although today divorce has lost its sting, it is not exactly welcome. In fact, sociologists still view it as a blot on the social structure, and the divorce rate in a state is often used as an indication of social decline.
    Where couples take their vows in religious or civil ceremonies their aim, by and large, is to live happily ever after. Yet many couples are unable to fulfill their marital vows and break up in two months, two years or twenty five years.
    Contemporary lifestyles, professional ambitions, a degree of financial independence, and unrealistic expectations have provided a breeding ground for this growing impermanence.
    On The Rocks – One Night
    After three days of riotous celebrations, t he grand finale was to be enacted in a five star honeymoon suite. And failed. The hunky bridegroom, fuelled by too much alcohol, too much exhaustion, too much excitement, could not consummate the marriage. The pert ‘n’ pretty bride flounced out of the tastefully trapped-out bedroom, went into the lounge and made a phone call. “Papa,” she wailed. “He’s gay!” Her parents returned within the hour, took her home, and started divorce proceedings.
    On The Rocks – Six Months
    When Rehaan and Ra shi got married after a nice long courtship, everybody prophesied a long innings. Articulate, attractive, leaping up corporate ladders, it seemed to be a match made in heaven. And then Rashi took to wearing shorts at home and little low-cut black dresses at family functions. Rehaan’s parents objected vociferously, Rashi sulked. “lf Rehaan can wear boxer shorts at home, why can’t I?” she queried. The marriage floundered over this rather innocuous issue. Rehaan admitted that she did have a point, but he couldn’t expect his parents to toe her Generation views. Neither would budge and a divorce is on the cards.
    On The Rocks – S Years
    Shayana conceded to an arranged marriage, so she dumped her lucrative job with an architect and agreed to play wife to a legal eagle. Cooking, deaning,
    looking after the twins who arrived after two years. After which Shayana piled on weight, while her self esteem plum metted. She refused to accompany Sandip to social events, but nagged him relentlessly about mythical affairs. One sad day he went to his parent’s home and never returned, leaving Shayana with enough of money to keep her satisfied. He has insisted on a divorce. “Enough is en o ugh, he explained.
    On The Rocks – 14 Years
    “I had been seeing someone r met over the Internet,” confessed Raj. “I was emotionally involved and seriously thinking of leaving Madhu to start a new life with this woman. When I told Madhu about the affair, she was devastated, and she threatened to commit suicide. Part of me wanted to run to this other woman, and another part of me felt obligated to stay because of the children.” The couple is still struggling to keep the marriage afloat after this deathblow.
    On The Rocks – 25 Years
    When Hamid walked out after his silver wedding, people wondered why. It was a love marriage and by his own admission Jasmine and he got on all right. There was no one else. He loved his kids. After working cheek-by-jowl with Hamid for a few years in the business which took off brilliantly, Jasmine became a lady of leisure – kitty partying, lunching, shopping. But her mid-life turned into a full blown crisis with crying jags and hysterics if he so much as stroked her hair. She refused to see a doctor. Hamid was frustrated and started coming home later and later. After their daughter was married and their son went abroad, he split and bought a new house in Pune where he set up a couple of consultancies. He has also developed a better relationship with his daughter.

    A study in the Mumbai Family Court shows that 90% of cases were filed less than a year after marriage, with 60% of couples aged between 21 and 30. 80% of wives left their homes on grounds of cruelty caused by mental and physical incompatibility. Says Ansuya Dutt, Mumbai-based divorce lawyer: ”The attitude of the young towards marriage is shockingly casual and frivolous. Early break-ups are rising. A glittering wedding that winds up in no time has become more and more common in urban India.” Rita Kapoor, marriage counsellor, cites possible reasons for early break-ups: ~Attitude and image problems top the list, followed by unrealistic expectations. Add this to communication breakdown, with many couples being clueless about their partners likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams, and you have a noxious brew.”
    Time was when marriages worked because they were governed by strong religious and traditional sanctions. With young couples the romance Un spools too fast. Most of them marry an image rather than a person. When reality intrudes such marriages crumble. Couples drift apart even when there is no battering, drunken scenes or affairs, although fidelity is fast losing its bite. Bruised egos and job pressures are also threats. The most trivial reasons can ignite a separation. Rina’s husband would not iron his own shirts. Anksh had sex with a colleague on a junket and somebody told his wife Latika refuses to quit her job as she wants to buy designer clothes when she pleases. She pays for a maid to look a her son. Says Mumbai-based psychiatrist Ashit Sheth: “Young professionals equate marriage with any other business or professional undertaking. The attitude is to give only as much as you get from the venture. Not less, not more. No one is willing to budge an inch.” Parents tend to support their own.
    “Twenty-five years ago a girl wanting a divorce came in alone,~ says Dutt, “because her parents would insist that she adjust and compromise and would say: You have made your bed, now lie in it. They believed in the sanctity of marriage, that it is forever.”
    “Today parents not only accompany their daughter, but insist on massive settlements which the man is incapable of paying. They do not mind that the man gets full custody of the children. They are happy to have their daughter at home – she will not only be a major wage earner, but will look after them, better than a son, in their old age.” Lawyers also advise young women “to dig your heels and stay put through thick and thin, under the marital roof, until a hefty settlement is made.”
    In long standing marriages psychological rather than social matters, translates into mental torture, physical violence or psychosomatic illnesses. Most often the marriage simply fades away without conflict or awareness. Any change happening – a job offer in another city, a passing fancy – is enough to bring the marriage to a quiet end. Richard Fenson, a British marriage counsellor and writer analysed the reasons for the failure of marriages over ten years.
    His findings may surprise you: “Good marriages fail more often than bad, because they were once good. A marriage that starts out perfectly well may gradually begin to generate gripes and grouses. Once the basic needs have been met, people develop higher needs of a more complex nature that are more difficult to satisfy, such as intellectual stimulation, shared values, romance, sexual excitement. This is what causes the Barbie ‘n’ Ken couple to become frustrated, discontented, outgrow one another and look elsewhere for ideal mates.”
    After 40 years as man and wife Roshan Cooper (74) dragged her 80-year-old husband Dadi Eruchshaw to the Parsi matrimonial court saying she “‘can no longer put up with the physical and mental harassment.” The Bombay High Court, which is hearing the case for the second time in 2-3 years, has once again asked Roshan and Dadi to settle their dispute amicably. At 70, Vicky, mother of two, grandmother of four, decided to end her marriage with her husband of 47 years. “I need to live my own life, to decorate my own home, to invite my friends over, to play cards, to travel with my Senior Citizen group.” Her erstwhile husband has always frowned upon these things. She now lives happily in a good sized one-bedroom flat, close to her eldest daughter and her family. When Freddy at 49 was offered a job in Singapore he took the opportunity to leap out of his 20- year-old marriage. I was terminally depressed, my parents are dead, my son is studying abroad.”
    He just left a message for Neela that it was over between them. “She won’t miss me,” he says. · Because all through our married life she spent most of her time with her mother and sister – talking to them, visiting them, discussing every fact of her life with them.” Her lawyer contacted him and he agreed to everything she wanted. In today’s context, “a marriage without mutual love, willingness and respect can stunt and destroy both partners. It should not be viewed as a license to trap a couple forever,” says Faroukh Bharucha, marriage counsellor. “It is pointless in living with a person when staying together creates more unhappiness to t he total environment. Guilt and pity are poisonous bonds and can lead to natural resentment. Sometimes divorce is the only solution.” Mumbai-based divorce lawyer Siddharth Soni is quoted in a morninger as saying that “Indians are becoming more individualists and aware, which is prompting many more couples to strike a blow for freedom from t he torture of a failing marriage. Add to that the inherent but newly expressed desire of many more Indians – of all ages – to start afresh because they remain economically active
    well past middle-age and the phenomenon of divorcing senior citizens suddenly starts to make more sense.” Soni says that older Indians may actually be thinking about themselves and what they want for the first time in their lives. “When one is past one’s prime, he or she has fewer strings – t he children are settled and independent and one is through with financial liabilities. So it may be the right time to think about oneself,” he says In agreement, Thomas Harnos, author of the Tm Okay, You’re OK” book writes: “To insist that a woman continues to live with a dispassionate and abusive man and never find happiness with anyone else is to discount t he importance of human dignity a favor of retribution. To insist that a man continues to stay put with a vengeful wife who denies any part in the determination of their marriage also discounts the principle of
    human dignity.”
    Strangely enough our generation of achievers which puts such a high premium on professional success, takes failure on the home front without batting in eyelid.
    They believe that failure in marriage is not an end but a beginning.
    Researchers say that people who are divorced after a bad experience, actually aim to get remarried. Most divorced people eventually remarry. Men tend to remarry sooner than women, and those who are older and wiser, usually remain married. Women who remarry successfully are ready to conquer old inhibitions and anxieties. For many, divorce is seen as a growth experience by which they are able to find not only a new and more suitable partner, but a greater awareness of themselves – what they need, and what they have to give to a relationship.

    Marriage Milestones
    If only the journey through married life came with road signs like “Slow Down: Men Working (Late Again)” and “Danger: Infidelity Ahead.” Maybe then so many relationships wouldn’t hit dead ends. Marriages degrade over time. Still, many couples stay together in spite of demanding jobs, big mortgages, and parental pressures.
    How? “While all partners face inevitable soars and slumps at various points In their relationships, those who survive learn how to navigate them successfully says University of Denver professor of psychology Howard J. Markman, Ph.D., author of Fighting for Your Marriage: Positive Steps for Preventing Divorce and Preserving a Lasting Love. Here’s advice from relationship experts to help you and your mate travel more smoothly along that sometimes bumpy road

    The issue: The first big fight
    Arguments over trivial things – running errands, hogging the TV remote – can to erode your relationship. Expert advice: “Commit to compromising more often and to controlling tempers. If you start to get mad, walk away, or put the discussion on pause,” says Markman. Work as a team. Sit down on a regular basis when you’re both feeling calm and discuss what annoys you. “Having a safe place to talk about disagreements will decrease the chance of small events erupting into bigger conflicts,” says Markman.
    The issue: The financial crisis
    Your spouse got laid off in the economic downturn and has gone into depression. You are terrified about the future, the bills, the mortgage, and keep nagging him to find a new job. And it’s all tearing your marriage apart. Expert advice: Identify your core needs and downsize everything else. Once you figure out how to get by on one salary half the battle 15 won. Let go of your resentment. Understand that getting laid off isn’t always his fault or problem, and it isn’t something he can just fix. Remembering how your spouse supported you during the good years can also help. This attitude adjustment will enable you to work together to figure out how to cope with the financial downturn.
    Contribute to the household in other ways. The unemployed person can help, maybe, by cooking dinner or taking over some of the partners chores. Any way you can make your spouse’s life easier and be a good companion will help.
    The issue: No more fireworks
    You’ve stopped communicating. You’ve grown apart. Over the years, it becomes harder to find time for the two of you as kids, work and other commitments come
    in the way. Expert advice: Find a counselor who can help you to rediscover the things that first attracted you to one another. When you give yourselves a chance to have fun and be together, you’ll remember why you got married. Couples need time alone so they can touch base and connect, to say
    “How did your meeting go?” or “A funny thing happened today.” Particularly in dual-career marriages, parents often feel guilty that they don’t spend enough time with their kids, so when they have a spare minute, they spend it with family. Keep aside an hour alone to talk before bed and to enjoy each other in bed. Go out to dinner once a week.. Building time for each other into your daily schedule ensures it will actually happen
    The issue: The affair
    Maybe it was a one-night-stand. Maybe it was an office romance. Regardless, infidelity can deliver a death blow to ,your marriage. You can still rescue it, although it will take a lot of time, patience, work – and some groveling – to put the pieces back together.
    Expert advice: It is important to forgive and trust one another again. Adopt the idea that “love is a decision more than a feeling,” and take a united pledge to make your marriage work. Staying for the children’s sake is a good place to start, but for the marriage to survive you may need to take the next step – i.e. commit to recreating a loving relationship. It’s easy to blame the partner who strayed from the marriage. But the victimised partner may also have to take on some of the responsibility for what went wrong. After all, if your spouse had an emotional involvement outside the marriage, it was because s/he had a need to share deep feelings and have another person accept him/her. A therapist can help you to communicate better to answer those needs.

  6. When the couples breaking up they allways have something to fight about. Properties, cars, maoney to split. Lawyers allways do the job for richest partner. The secong half just have to take what their ex partners are offering. This is also happend to Marie Douglas-David. This is not fair, but this is the reality.

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