Biggest Threat to Marriages

Finances long believed top risk factor, but no more

As women increasingly gain status and respect in the workforce, there is an assumption that newfound financial stability makes it easier for a woman to walk away from her marriage if the relationship is untenable.

Having a good job and being financially sound, however, have little to do with the high number of divorces these days, according to a new study. Instead, it’s whether or not the guys are willing to work — both at home and outside the home.

The risk of divorce increases substantially when the husband isn’t employed full time.

The study, “Money, Work, and Marital Stability: Assessing Change in the Gendered Determinants of Divorce,” looked at data for more than 6,300 different-sex couples. The spouses range in age from 18 to 55, from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics.

The goal was to examine what effect — if any — couples’ division of paid and unpaid labor, their overall financial resources, and wives’ economic prospects had on marital stability. Interestingly, it comes at a time when more men find themselves unemployed, underemployed, or choosing to stay home to take care of the children while Mom is out working.

In general, financial factors don’t determine whether or not a couple stays together, according to study author Alexandra Killewald, a professor of sociology at Harvard University. Rather, the risk of divorce increases substantially when the husband is not employed full time.

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“The work mattered, not the money,” Killewald told Lifezette.

She compared couples married in 1974 or earlier with couples married in 1975 or later to explore whether the effects, or lack thereof, of these factors changed over time.

Wives, on average, do more than 70 percent of the housework.

“For couples who married before 1975, marriages were more stable when wives did a larger share of the housework,” said Killewald. “This may reflect that, for couples of that earlier period, housework was often considered solely the responsibility of the wife. For couples married more recently, expectations for the division of housework between couples may have changed so that men are expected to contribute some to household labor.”

Even in these more recent marriages, Killewald said wives do more than 70 percent of the housework, on average. Men are contributing a little more than they once did, however, and their contributions are now expected and appreciated by wives.

What’s important to note in all of this is while gender roles have afforded women greater flexibility for work without jeopardizing their marriages — men have not been granted similar freedom.

“The results are consistent with the theory that marriage is a social institution that has gendered norms of behavior associated with it, including the expectation that husbands are employed full time. When couples deviate from these expectations, divorce is more likely. Of course, the results are based on average associations — for some couples, the husband not being employed full time could be unproblematic.”

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More research on couples with a deliberately non-traditional division of labor could help to better explain current social trends and help couples navigate a changing workforce and their marriages moving forward, said Killewald. Her study appears in the August issue of the American Sociological Review.

“How husbands’ and wives’ employment and housework are associated with divorce is not fixed, but changeable. It’s certainly possible that in the future, more husbands taking on responsibility at home will change expectations — so that a husband not working full time is no longer associated with heightened divorce risk,” said Killewald.

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