Some new data about divorce and non-marital breakups contains an unexpected finding, and I think it underscores the fact that we're in the midst of an ongoing evolution in what people want and seek in their romantic relationships. The study, based on a survey of over 2000 heterosexual couples, found that women initiated nearly 70 percent of all divorces. Yet there was no significant difference between the percentage of breakups initiated by women and men in non-marriage relationships.
How to explain the data? I find that these data are consistent with what I and others have seen clinically. When men and women seek couples therapy and then subsequently divorce; or, when either partner seeks individual therapy about a marriage conflict that ends in divorce, it’s often the woman who expresses more overt conflict and dissatisfaction about the state of the marriage. On the other hand, the man is more likely to report feeling troubled by his wife’s dissatisfaction, but pretty much “OK” with the way things are; he's content to just lope along as time passes.
In contrast, I find that younger couples—who are more likely to form non-marital but committed relationships—experience more egalitarian partnerships to begin with. When their relationships crumble beyond repair, both partners experience that disintegration. Both are equally likely to address it; and part, if it can’t be healed.
These clinical observations are consistent with what the study’s lead author, Michael Rosenfeld, suggests: that women may be more likely to initiate divorces because the married women reported lower levels of relationship quality than married men. In contrast, women and men in non-marital relationships reported equal levels of relationship quality. Rosenfeld said his results support the feminist assertion that some women experience heterosexual marriage as oppressive or uncomfortable.
He adds, “I think that marriage as an institution has been a little bit slow to catch up with expectations for gender equality. 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. On the other hand, I think that non-marital relationships lack the historical baggage and expectations of marriage, which makes the non-marital relationships more flexible and therefore more adaptable to modern expectations, including women’s expectations for more gender equality.”