This article original appeared on AdvocateDaily.com on June 27, 2019.
While it may be more common for women to feel financially dependent in relationships, making it difficult to leave situations of physical or emotional abuse, the same can be true for men when roles are reversed, says Toronto family lawyer Geoffrey Wong.
“With this trend, this will cease to be largely a women’s issue,” he tells AdvocateDaily.com.
Wong and Inna Tsinman, principal of Tsinman Law, are advocating for the development of the tort of economic coercion that would help protect people in long-term relationships who are financially dependent and face harassment or distress as a result of the pressure to perform sexually. Tsinman calls this situation “coercive caring.”
“There needs to be a tort for dealing with these types of situations in order to empower the victims to leave these relationships,” Wong says.
He says this issue is important for women, but he has had male clients who also feel trapped because of their lesser earning power.
“The nuance in these scenarios is there’s more of a stigma if you are a male who is dependent on the woman,” Wong says, adding he has noticed this among older clients who were brought up to believe a man’s worth is defined by his ability to provide financially.
“I had a client who was at the point of self-harm when he came to the realization his partner wanted to end the relationship,” he says. “He wondered how he would take care of himself when he had been so dependent on this person. ‘How do I look at myself in the mirror every day and call myself a man?’”
Of course, self-worth is not based on the ability to provide, “but for these people that feeling is very real,” Wong says.
“That stigma has an impact on their prospects in terms of what they can expect in a separation. In the legal system, spousal support looks at both means and needs,” he says.
If one partner has health problems that prevent them from working, it creates a situation where they are financially dependent on the other who is further ahead in terms of their earning power, Wong says.
“You still have this dependency, which is exactly what support is meant to rectify,” he says. “If you are in an affluent and long-term relationship that suddenly ends, you don’t receive support based on what you need to get by. It’s on a level that equalizes you with the other person, so you both maintain the same standard of lifestyle.”
But for men, it’s not uncommon for the courts to take more of a “needs-based approach” when determining support, Wong says.
Similarly, he says fathers who may have sacrificed their careers to care for their children while their spouses brought in the bulk of the income may be concerned about being treated fairly in the courts.
“It seems that the overwhelming sense among men is the legal system is slanted against them, so they don’t feel this sense of security, even though this may not be the reality,” Wong says.
In the end, the issue of coercive caring predominantly remains a women’s issue, he says, adding he considers himself a feminist.
“But any feminist should care equally about an issue, whether it largely or disproportionately affects women or men,” he says. “This is an issue that crosses the gender divide, and legal practitioners need to be aware of our own biases.”
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