Parting ways

Why women are more likely than men to initiate a divorce

“There’s a certain degree of male privilege and expectation that comes with marriage”

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A man and woman holding hands. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

Social scientists have known for decades that women are more likely than men to initiate a divorce. In 1956, sociologist William Goode discovered that, among couples in Detroit who’d gotten divorced in the 1940s, the wife had instigated about two-thirds of the breakups.

Since then — in spite of shifts in gender relations, advances in women’s rights and profound changes in our attitude towards marriage itself — that finding has been replicated repeatedly, in different contexts and cultures; researchers have found the same pattern to be true in Europe and Australia. (There’s some evidence that men are beginning to catch up in the U.K., where women’s rates of divorce initiation have fallen from 72 percent in the early 1990s to 69 percent in 2001 and 66 percent in 2011.)

In a new paper, sociologist Michael Rosenfeld adds to the discussion with an analysis of the breakup of non-marital, heterosexual relationships. Rosenfeld, an associate professor at Stanford University, presented his findings on Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago.

In 2009, Rosenfeld began polling partnered men and women — some married, some dating — about their relationships. He followed up with them every year for five years, and by 2015, he had collected five waves of data on a nationally representative sample of 2,538 straight Americans between the ages of 19 and 64. Some 371 of them broke up or got divorced over the course of the study.

Rosenfeld’s findings on divorce were consistent with previous research: women were the initiators 69 percent of the time, and both men and women usually agreed that it was the woman who wanted to call it quits. When Rosenfeld looked at the dissolution of non-marital relationships, however, he found that men and women were equally likely to have initiated the breakup. And whether the couple was cohabiting or not, non-marital breakups were also much more likely to have been a mutual decision.

Rosenfeld’s findings suggest that women’s dominance in divorce initiation isn’t rooted in some inherent aspect of heterosexual relationships, as many researchers have assumed; rather, something seems to shift in favor of the man, making him more likely than his wife to be contented, when a couple gets married.

Rosenfeld believes this is related to unfair expectations women are burdened with when they enter into a marriage — expectations that don’t necessarily come up in even long-term, non-marital relationships.

“There’s a certain degree of male privilege and expectation that comes with marriage,” he told Women in the World. “Some of those historical aspects of male domination get reinvented and recreated even now, when they don’t appear to be part of the institution in the same way.”

In the past, women’s marital disadvantages were spelled out. “A hundred and fifty years ago, the wife was legally the property of the husband,” Rosenfeld notes. “She couldn’t vote, couldn’t testify in court … Even though we no longer live in an era where wives are legally subordinate to their husbands, the institution of marriage still carries certain expectations.” A man might assume his wife will spend more time doing housework, take primary responsibility for any children and change her last name. “There’s ethnographic research that suggests that men put pressure on their fiancées to take their surname,” Roseneld said. Even today, most women succumb to it: less than 10 percent of women who get married keep their own last names.

Other researchers posit that women may be more sensitive to relationship problems; throughout the lifespan, married women consistently report lower levels of relationship satisfaction than their husbands.

That women are more likely to want a divorce is in some ways surprising. Women’s responses to the General Social Survey confirm the stereotype that single women tend to be more interested in marriage and commitment than single men. And, historically, women’s social standing has been more dependent on marriage than men’s.

Recent research suggests women still take a greater financial hit when a marriage dissolves. “A lot of women end up in poverty for the first time post-divorce,” Rosenfeld said. “Women are not unaware that divorce can have negative economic and material consequences for them and their kids. For them to pursue the divorce anyway, they have to really want to get out.”

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