A generation ago, women were financially dependent on their spouse and feared the social stigma of divorce. Fast forward to the 21st century, and today women are more likely to have careers of their own, are less financially dependent on their spouse, and divorce's stigma is less of a burden. According to the five-year study by Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfield, these reasons may be why women in heterosexual marriages initiate divorce more than their counterparts. Below, we unpack that and other key findings from the report.
A Super Brief History of Divorce
Since the 1950s, researchers already knew that women were way more likely to shed a (heterosexual) marriage. By one study's accounts, 60 percent of American women were the plaintiffs in divorce cases between 1825 and 1866––and, depending on which statistics you look at, that number really hasn't changed since.
The 2015 study looked at more than 2,000 heterosexual married couples over the course of five years (between 2009 and 2015) and found that women initiated divorce 69 percent of the time. On a similar note, research published by Rosenfeld in 2017 outlines that in non-marital heterosexual relationships, both men and women are equally likely to end relationships, indicating that there is something about the institution of marriage driving the gender gap in filing for divorce.
And, data from "The Early Years of Marriage" (EYMS) project by the University of Michigan (which is also the longest running longitudinal study of heterosexual marriage and divorce) affirm that divorce outcomes are higher when women experienced tension in the relationship. The study began in 1986, and participants are based in Detroit. By the 16-year mark, almost 40 percent of couples in the EYMS study divorced. "It could reflect a lack of investment in the relationship on the husband’s part... they might believe it’s unnecessary to change or adjust their behavior,” speculates Dr. Kira Birditt of University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, who conducted research for the study.
Stifled and Controlled
“The expectation is that marriage has a whole bunch of benefits and positive characteristics for women that it didn’t have in the past, but the truth is much trickier than that,” Rosenfeld told the Washington Post in 2015.
Of those study participants who said they weren't happy in their marriages, many mentioned controlling husbands and a loss of independence as reasons for their unhappiness.
For example, Psychology Today writes that when it comes to splitting up responsibilities around the house, heterosexual marriages have changed, sure, but it's still misaligned with modern expectations. While more married men take on more household tasks today versus how things used to be, "still the division of labor isn't equal." This is particularly unbalanced for working mothers, who are still shouldering more household work than their partners; which is interesting given surveys of married adults who say that sharing household chores benefits a marriage.
Taking it a step further, one 2016 study indicates that, "when men contribute equally to household chores, couples tend to have more frequent and satisfying sex," writes Psychology Today.
In today’s society, women are more likely to have their own career. Even stay at home parents have college degrees and marketable skills to fall back on should they divorce. According to the Stanford study, today's financially independent women can quite literally afford to get divorced. Women today have "no practical need for husbands who don’t make them happy," reports the Washington Post. By that same coin, however, one study reveals that there are gender differences when it comes to divorce outcomes.
The study, published in Demography, found that women were more likely than men to be negatively impacted by divorce.
So, Why Exactly Are Women Filing First?
Rosenfeld alludes Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique might have had the answer in the 1960s when Friedan suggested that marriage oppressed women, though there isn't enough hard data to support that notion. “I think that marriage as an institution has been a little bit slow to catch up with expectations for gender equality," said Rosenfeld. "Wives still take their husbands’ surnames, and are sometimes pressured to do so. Husbands still expect their wives to do the bulk of the housework and the bulk of the childcare." Or, could Facebook be playing a role?
On the other hand,"Happily married couples tend to make explicit agreements about everyday living—who does the dishes, for example—as well as weightier issues like the prospect of having children," says Alan Booth, a professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University. "They've talked to one another in an environment of mutual respect and consideration." According to Booth's research, divorce rates peak in the third year of marriage, which might be an indication that newlyweds haven't taken the time to really get to know each other, says Booth.