When it comes to filing for divorce, men and women are not equals. In heterosexual marriages, one of the two sexes files much more often, and they have been doing so for at least since 1867.
Do you know who initiates divorce more often?
In their review of historical data and analyses of data from 1995, a law professor and an economist found that the answer is women. In 1867, 62% of divorces were initiated by women. From 1880 through 1922, women consistently initiated 66 or 67% of all divorces. More recently, rates rose to around 70%.
So why is it that women file for divorce so much more often than men do? There are many possible explanations, and the authors had data relevant to a few of them.
The most important factor, according to their data, was custody – who gets the kids? The parent who gets the kids is more likely to file for divorce.
The authors also documented a nasty, though not exactly unfamiliar pattern, whereby one of the spouses gets supported by the other, then leaves. In a stereotypical example, the wife puts the husband through med school, then he leaves her. Not all examples fit the stereotype, though, and sometimes it is the wife who is supported in her pursuit of higher education or career success, then leaves.
Cruelty, including physical violence, is a factor that the authors expected to be important. In the data they had available, though, it accounted for just 6% of the reasons given by the person filing for divorce.
The authors also suggest that women are tempted to leave marriages when their husbands are unfaithful and when they do far less than their share of housework and childcare. Divorced women, they note, “report relief and certainty that they were right in leaving their marriages.” Many also appreciate having more control over spending once they are on their own (even if they have less money to spend).
The research establishes the fact of the sex difference in initiating divorce more definitively than it explains the reasons women consistently file more often than men do. As the internal dynamics of marriages change over time, and as the place of divorce in society changes (as, for example, it becomes more commonplace and less stigmatized), the reasons for divorce are likely to change, too.
Overwhelmingly, research and writing about single people (including divorced and always-single people) focuses on single women. I think that’s because marriage is supposed to be a much bigger deal in women’s lives than men’s. Living single is presumed to be a big issue for them. And yet, there they are, initiating the end of their marriages at a much higher rate than men. Usually, it is not because they’ve found someone new – women remarry less often than men do. Single life has its appeal, and not just to men.
Gavel photo available from Shutterstock