Contrary to common belief, a new U.S. study suggests that women’s growing role in the workforce is not a major factor in divorce. But a husband’s ability to keep a full-time job might be.
The study, of over 6,300 U.S. couples, found that the odds of divorce were no different whether a wife worked full-time or not. Instead, it was husbands’ full-time employment — or lack thereof — that made a significant difference.
The findings stand in stark contrast to a popular notion — that “working women” are partly responsible for fueling the U.S. divorce rate.
“Some prior work has suggested that women’s economic independence has made it easier for them to leave a marriage, and that might increase the odds of divorce,” explained study author Alexandra Killewald. She is a professor of sociology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
“I found no evidence of that,” she said.
In fact, Killewald found no evidence that either wives’ incomes or couples’ incomes were a major factor in divorce.
“It seems that the dollars don’t matter,” she said. “But our expectations of men and women might.”
Why? Killewald pointed to some other patterns the study turned up: In more recent years, wives’ willingness to do the lion’s share of housework has become less important in marriage stability. But men’s work outside the home still matters.
Killewald found that among couples married before 1975, the odds of divorce were lower when wives were doing most or all of the housework.
But that pattern no longer existed among couples married between 1975 and 2011, the findings showed.
In contrast, men’s work outside of the home remained critical. Among couples married in more recent years, the odds of divorce were 25 percent higher when husbands lacked a full-time job.
But the trend was not explained by lost income.
According to Killewald, the findings may instead reflect societal attitudes.
These days, it’s accepted that women can break free of the traditional homemaker role and still be a “good wife.” But the definition of what makes a “good husband” hasn’t changed all that much, Killewald said.
Pamela Smock, a sociologist who was not involved in the study, agreed.
“While women’s roles have changed markedly over the past several decades, men’s have not kept pace,” said Smock, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.
“In our culture,” she added, “to be a ‘husband’ still means being the breadwinner.”
When husbands don’t meet those expectations, Smock said, it may strain a marriage. “There has been other research linking men’s ability to play the provider role with both getting married and staying married,” she noted.
The findings, published in the August issue of American Sociological Review, are based on over 6,300 married couples who took part in different “waves” of an ongoing national survey that started in 1968.
Killewald found that for couples married after 1974, the average odds of getting a divorce in the next year were 2.6 percent if the wife worked full-time. If she didn’t, those odds were nearly the same, at 2.5 percent.
On the other hand, if a husband lacked a full-time job, there was a 3.3 percent likelihood of divorce in the next year. That compared with 2.5 percent if he had full-time work.
As for housework, women married after 1974 no longer had to bear the load of the work to keep their marriage happy — at least if they worked full-time. And there was “suggestive evidence,” Killewald said, that the odds of divorce were a bit lower if husbands pitched in at home.
“I think having things feel fair is important,” Killewald added.
Smock called the study “rigorous” and “compelling.” And she agreed that the findings “undermine the notion that women’s growing economic independence [has been] the main driver of trends in divorce.”
The findings do not mean that work and finances are never a factor in divorce, according to Killewald. Even though couples’ incomes did not seem important, for instance, arguments over money could be, she said.
And of course, she added, the study is describing averages across groups — and not what’s true for every couple.
The American Psychological Association has advice for couples on maintaining a healthy relationship.