Homo Consumericus

The nature and nurture of consumption

Are Men or Women More Likely to File for Divorce?

I divorce thee!

A substantial portion of the research on human mating explores phenomena leading up to a romantic union. For example, the pioneering work of David M. Buss has identified the attributes that are universally sought by men and women in prospective mates (cf. Buss, 1989). As a side note, I was honored that Dr. Buss was kind enough to write the foreword to my 2011 trade book The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature. In my own work, I have explored sex differences in mate search prior to choosing a winning partner or rejecting unworthy candidates (see my recent post wherein I discuss this project here). A fundamental evolutionary principle that runs through many of these studies is the recognition that men and women have evolved distinct costs and benefits associated with mating, thus yielding a wide range of sexually dimorphic behaviors and preferences (e.g., the greater choosiness of women when it comes to mate choice). Given these biological realities (which hold true across a great majority of species), when it comes to mate choice, women are in the driver’s seat. Does this dynamic change when it comes to the dissolution of a union? If women choose the winning suitor, do they also instigate the divorce proceedings or do men serve as the greater catalysts of these matrimonial ruptures? Take a moment to make your prediction.

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A 2000 paper published in American Law and Economics Review and authored by Margaret F. Brinig and Douglas W. Allen reports data (Table 1, p. 128) from several studies across the United States and spanning more than 100 years (1867 to 1995) regarding the percentage of instances where the woman had filed for divorce. Based on the figures reported in Table 1, I calculated that women had initiated the divorce in 68.9% of all cases.  In only 1 out of 25 datasets were men the greater initiators of divorce. Does this surprise you?  One might find it surprising that this sex effect appears impervious to the profound legal, economic, and social changes that women have experienced in American society within the prescribed time period.

While Brinig and Allen offered several compelling economic arguments to explain this ubiquitous pattern, I think that women’s greater likelihood of seeking to end a union is a further testament that when it comes to mate choice (or in this case mate rejection), the ladies hold much of the power. That said, all is not rosy for women as there are many cultural and religious traditions that seek to mitigate if not remove much of their mating autonomy (e.g., the practice of forced marriages; Talaq as mandated by Sharia law).

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Gad Saad is Professor of Marketing at Concordia University and author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct.


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