A substantial portion of the research on human mating has explored the decisions leading up to a romantic union. For example, the pioneering work of David M. Buss has identified the attributes in prospective mates that are universally sought by men and women (Buss, 1989).*
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 on this project.) 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, yielding a wide range of distinct behaviors and preferences—for example, 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.
But does this dynamic change when it comes to the dissolution of a union?
If women choose the winning suitor, do they also instigate divorce proceedings more often, or do men serve as the greater catalysts of matrimonial ruptures?
Take a moment to make your prediction. . .
Here's the answer: A 2000 paper published in American Law and Economics Review by Margaret F. Brinig and Douglas W. Allen reported data (Table 1, p. 128) from several studies across the United States spanning more than 100 years (1867 to 1995) regarding the percentage of instances where the woman had filed for divorce. Based on the collected data, I calculated that women had initiated the divorce in 68.9% of all cases. In only one of 25 separate datasets were men the greater initiators of divorce.
Does this surprise you?
It is somewhat surprising that this sex effect appears impervious to the profound legal, economic, and social changes that women have experienced in American society within the time period covered by the study.
But 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, there remain many cultural and religious traditions that seek to mitigate, if not remove, much of women's mating autonomy, such as the practice of forced marriages, or Talaq as mandated by Sharia law.
* 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.
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