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Who Is More Likely to Leave a Bad Relationship?

… and why men and women would both be happier if this difference went away.

David Pereiras/Shutterstock
Source: David Pereiras/Shutterstock

It is well-established that women end more marriages than men (Braver, Whitley, and Ng 1994; Brinig and Allen 2000; Hewitt 2009; Hewitt, Western, and Baxter 2006; Kalmijn and Poortman 2006). Regardless of who is asked (him or her) and what measure is used (e.g., who wanted the divorce more, who filed the legal papers), women are the “dumpers” in about two-thirds of divorces (Braver, Whitley, and Ng 1994).

This same pattern is reflected in the termination of dating relationships (Helgeson 1994). By both her and his reports, women are more likely than men to end dating relationships; and regardless of who ends the relationship, women are more likely to have anticipated the breakup. This gender difference in desiring and anticipating relationship dissolution may partially explain the gender gap in post-breakup well-being—men fare worse.

Why do women leave?

Rubin, Peplau, and Hill (1981) find that men fall in love more readily than women, while women fall out of love more readily than men. Moreover, contrary to stereotypes of women as more sentimental, they are in fact generally more cautious than men about entering into romantic relationships and quicker to exit a troubled union.

Women also tend to be more aware of relationship problems (Helgeson 1994; Rubin, Peplau, and Hill 1981) and may have greater unwillingness to stay in an unsatisfactory union. Moreover, women may be more willing to give up on troubled relationships despite strong emotional investment. Consistent with this, men have strong concerns about missing a romantic relationship associated with reduced intention to end it (Hendy, Can, Joseph, and Scherer 2013).

Not only might men be less sensitive to relationship problems or more tolerant of discord, they may find it more difficult to leave because they are more emotionally dependent on their partner. Emotional support within romantic unions tends to be asymmetric—women give more support than they receive. As a result, men are more likely than women to report that their partner is their main source of emotional support (McClintock 2014).

In addition, norms of masculinity may make it more difficult for men to confide in friends or family after breaking up. Men may be inhibited from ending romantic relationships because of anticipated social embarrassment in seeking an alternative confidante, or by anticipated emotional isolation (Hendy, Can, Joseph, and Scherer 2013).

Better off after breaking up?

Brinig and Allen (2000) argue that women are more likely to end marriages than men because divorce is more often in their best interest. Even though women generally suffer a steeper decline than men in their standard of living post-divorce, they may still benefit by leaving an unhappy or inequitable marriage, whereas men are usually the over-benefitting party within marriage.

Similarly, women in dating relationships report greater emotional distress than men; this difference becomes larger for couples that remain together. In contrast, among those couples that have broken up, women report less emotional distress than men, regardless of which partner initiated the split (Helgeson 1994). What is more, women who have broken up report less emotional distress than women who have not broken up (Helgeson 1994).

Possibly the asymmetric nature of emotional support within romantic relationships takes a toll on partnered women’s emotional well-being while benefitting partnered men.

This asymmetry in emotional support may help explain why women suffer less distress than men after the dissolution of a romantic relationship, regardless of who dumped whom (Helgeson 1994). In addition, women may also be more able to cope with rejection (Rubin, Peplau, and Hill 1981). Thus, it is not only because women are disproportionately the “dumpers” that they are better-off post-breakup; women are also better able to cope when they are the “dumpees.”

Why does it matter?

Insofar as women end more unions than men because they are less satisfied or more aware of problems, reducing the gender gap in romantic well-being and romantic awareness would benefit both genders.

Traditional gender constructions place the burden of monitoring and maintaining relationships on women (Hendy et al 2013); they may also take on responsibility for terminating failing relationships. At the same time, norms of masculinity may leave some men unprepared for the emotional labor required to maintain a healthy romantic relationship; unable to anticipate relationship dissolution; and uncomfortable confiding their romantic troubles to friends or family.

A more equitable division of emotional labor in romantic relationships would likely increase their quality and stability and leave both partners better prepared in the event of a breakup.


Braver, Sanford L., Marnie Whitley, and Christine Ng. 1994. "Who Divorced Whom? Methodological and Theoretical Issues." Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 20:1-20.

Brinig, Margaret F. and Douglas W. Allen. 2000. "'These Boots Are Made for Walking': Why Most Divorce Filers Are Women." American Law and Economics Review 2:126-169.

Helgeson, Vicki S. 1994. "Long-Distance Romantic Relationships: Sex Differences in Adjustment and Breakup." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 20:254-265.

Hendy, Helen M., S. Hakan Can, Lauren J. Joseph, and Cory R. Scherer. 2013. "University Students Leaving Relationships(USLR): Scale Development and Gender Differences in Decisions to Leave Romantic Relationships." Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development 46:232-242.

Hewitt, Belinda. 2009. "Which Spouse Initiates Marital Separation When There Are Children Involved?" Journal of Marriage and Family 71:362-372.

Hewitt, Belinda, Mark Western, and Janeen Baxter. 2006. "Who Decides? The Social Characteristics of Who Initiates Marital Separation." Journal of Marriage and Family 68:1165-1177.

Kalmijn, Matthijs and Anne-Rigt Poortman. 2006. "His or Her Divorce? The Gendered Nature of Divorce and its Determinants." European Sociological Review 22:201-214.

McClintock, Elizabeth Aura. 2014. "Why Breakups Are Actually Tougher on Men: A range of studies shows that they're less steady on their own than women." in It’s a Man’s, and a Woman’s, World: From mating to gender and sexuality to dating. Psychology Today.

Rubin, Zick, Letitia Anne Peplau, and Charles T. Hill. 1981. "Loving and Leaving: Sex Differences in Romantic Attachments." Sex Roles 7:821-835.

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