- Women initiate about two-thirds of all divorces.
- While our female ancestors benefited in specific ways from long-term relationships, women today have more opportunities.
- An evolutionary-mismatch perspective can explain why women desire divorce more than men.
- Redefining "who does what" in the household, better childcare support, and shifting gender roles may help relational interdependence.
It's common knowledge that the divorce rate in the U.S. is high, hovering around 43-46% for first-time marriages.
What is less commonly known is that women tend to want and initiate divorces. Approximately two-thirds of different-sex marriages end upon the wishes of the wife, a finding that has emerged in the U.S. and cross-culturally (Rosenfeld et al., 2018; Charvoz et al., 2009). Scholars have recognized this as a bit of a paradox: Culturally, single women tend to want to get married more than single men, but once married, women tend to be less satisfied in their relationships than men are. They're the ones who want out.
While women initiate divorces more often, they are not more likely than their male partners to break up non-marital relationships. Indeed, early research into non-marital breakups shows no gender difference in satisfaction and no gender difference in the desire to end these relationships (Rosenfeld et al., 2018). Only for marital relationships, not premarital relationships, do women play an especially important role in determining their trajectory.
Divorce should harm women, but it doesn't
Divorce is a legal process with a considerable financial, social, and personal toll. For women, the financial hit of divorce tends to be higher than men, and if children are involved, caregiving responsibilities tend to fall disproportionally on these newly single mothers (Leopold, 2018). These are significant challenges. From a practical standpoint, it would be no surprise if women fared more poorly than men after divorce.
But such is not the case. Women tend to fare better in the immediate aftermath, and no differently from men in terms of life satisfaction over time (van Scheppingen, & Leopold, 2020). Despite the considerable financial costs associated with divorce and the heavy burden of solo-parenting, women (on average) do well after divorce.
Women now need marriages less than men
A new perspective on why women tend to initiate divorce takes an evolutionary approach and emphasizes a fascinating evolutionary mismatch between what our female ancestors have benefited from having and the opportunities that today's modern society affords (Parker et al., 2022). Their idea is this:
- For biological reasons, our female ancestors had a larger minimal investment for any given offspring than our male ancestors (think: being pregnant, risky delivery, nursing). With high initial investments, women formed attachments to the offspring and tended to maintain the caregiving role. This made it beneficial to stay close to home and rely on partners for food and protection.
- Our ancestral fathers were, therefore, the ones to provide the resources (food, protection), while our ancestral mothers tended to rely on them for these resources.
- Fast-paced social changes (e.g., birth control and family planning, access to education) have created a new scenario where reliance on a spouse for resources (e.g., money) is no longer as necessary as it might have been ancestrally.
- Women do not need a partner who provides resources, which historically they did. The benefits they gain from marriage may be less than what men gain from marriage, and so, if unsatisfying, women may be more likely to initiate divorce.
The mismatch between what today's world offers women and what women have historically required from a relationship may introduce relationship instability. Parker and colleagues (2022) point to the potential problem of weakening interdependence between partners, made harder when women still bear the majority of the burden of childcare despite earning as much as, or more, than their male partners. Stress, annoyance, resentment—none of this is healthy for relationship functioning.
New supports are needed to take advantage of positive social changes
Women may be the ones who seek divorce much more than men because of the evolutionary mismatch described above. In the gendered institution of marriage, changes may need to take place to support healthy interdependence in light of the opportunities that women have. Parker and colleagues (2022) suggest the following:
- More explicit division of household labor. Partners may benefit from conversations dividing household chores in a way that reflects both partners' time and energy.
- Childcare support. Families in which both partners are working are at risk if one partner also manages the abundance of childcare responsibilities (e.g., the mental load of childrearing). Might new arrangements, with hired support or family support, help recognize the work strain on both partners?
- Recognizing our defaults. If we hold ancestrally based expectations, Parker and colleagues (2022) suggest that acknowledging them as such could benefit partners.
Ultimately, Parker and colleagues (2022) provide a new way of thinking about divorce in modern-day marriages. They suggest some of the dissatisfaction and tensions we experience are responses to a relationship system designed for a different era. While changing gender norms might be a long and slow process, ultimately, a new way of thinking about gender in relationships could go a long way to supporting healthy marriages.
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Rosenfeld, M. J. (2018). Who wants the breakup? Gender and breakup in heterosexual couples. In Social networks and the life course (pp. 221-243). Springer, Cham.
Leopold, T. (2018). Gender differences in the consequences of divorce: A study of multiple outcomes. Demography, 55(3), 769-797.
Charvoz, L., Bodenmann, G., Bertoni, A., Iafrate, R., & Giuliani, C. (2008). Is the partner who decides to divorce more attractive? A comparison between initiators and noninitiators. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 50(1), 22-37.
van Scheppingen, M. A., & Leopold, T. (2020). Trajectories of life satisfaction before, upon, and after divorce: Evidence from a new matching approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(6), 1444–1458. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000270