Research has shown that women are more likely to initiate a divorce than their husbands, a fact some explain by claiming women are more sensitive to relationship difficulties than men. Not so, argues new research: Men and women are equally likely to end other kinds of relationships, suggesting that something unique to the institution of marriage is behind the gender gap in filing for divorce.
Researchers have known since the 1950s that women are significantly more likely to want out of a (heterosexual) marriage. In fact, according to one 1976 study, women were the plaintiffs in about 60 percent of judicial divorce proceedings in the United States between 1825 and 1866. That number’s pretty much stayed the same ever since.
“One plausible explanation offered … is that women are more sensitive to relationship difficulties,” writes Stanford associate professor of sociology Michael Rosenfeld in a paper he presented last week at the annual American Sociological Society meeting. If that argument is true, however, it would mean that unmarried women in heterosexual relationships should break up with their boyfriends more often than the other way around. Until now, nobody had actually checked to see if that was true.
Turns out, it’s not: Romantically involved but unmarried heterosexual men initiated just as many break-ups as their female counterparts did. That conclusion’s based on a new analysis of data Rosenfeld had collected as part of a broader study on how couples meet and stay together or break up. That study asked 4,002 adults about their romantic relationships five times between 2009 and 2015. For the new analysis, though, Rosenfeld narrowed in on 371 heterosexual men and women who reported they’d gone through break-ups or divorces during that six-year research period. Of those, 92 had been married, 76 had been living together, and 203 had been dating but not living together.
Consistent with past research, the vast majority of divorces were initiated by women; after adjusting for differences in the proportion of women in the study versus the general population, Rosenfeld estimates that 69 percent of divorces happen because the woman wants out.
But that wasn’t true of those who were dating, Rosenfeld learned. Instead, the split was nearly even—only slightly more women than men dumped their significant other, although the difference was statistically insignificant.
Men were also less likely to report that women were the ones who wanted to get divorced. Seventy-eight percent of divorced women said they wanted to end their marriages, Rosenfeld estimates, while only 63 percent of men claimed their marriages ended because their wives wanted out. Smaller but similar disparities appeared in break-up perceptions among men and women who’d been in a relationship but not married.
Given that women file for divorce more than men, why are they less happily married? Rosenfeld suggests Betty Friedan had the answer, more or less, when she and other second-wave feminists contended that marriage oppressed women. The data, however, doesn’t support that argument either. For now, the answer remains a mystery.