Sunday, July 02, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? – Who Wants Out And Why?

From Ash:

When we hear a couple is splitting up, we don't say, "Well, they are poor, Protestant couple who live in the West Coast: the odds are against them." Instead, we ask, "What happened?" We want to know why. We want to know who or what was to blame, and who decided to leave.

Which means that it came as a surprise to me that – while there are hordes of studies on socioeconomic and other demographic factors influencing divorce – there are comparatively few studies focusing the actual reasons couples give for divorcing. But what these find, I think, are an equally fascinating glimpse into marriages and divorces that I can't skip over.

"Honey, we need to talk."

All right, if you're like me and hear the text outloud in your head, then I'm willing to bet that you heard a female voice say that sentence. And if you think that tells you the answer to who usually wants the divorce, you're right.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Paula England, a member of the Council on Contemporary Families and a sociology professor at Stanford University. Dr. England's been involved with some of my more favorite studies, and she's now examining who initates divorce.

Dr. England explained to me that a previous study had found that about 2/3 of divorce petitions are filed by the wife, but that doesn't necessarily show who wanted the divorce. There could be a myriad of reasons why it was more convenient to divorce under the wife's name.

But comparing that data to survey responses of couples after their divorce, women were the ones who were saying that they wanted the divorce more than their husband wanted it.

How often was it that many more of women wanted the divorce more than the men?

2/3. The same as the amount responsible for divorce filings. And yet another study of divorced couples found that the majority of divorced wives and husbands both agreed it was the wife who wanted out.

So it does seem to be that it's the women who want the divorce.

The harder question is why.

Dr. England's still working on that, but there are two major theories. First, it could be that, while divorce generally is harder on the women than the men, that marriage, too, is just a worse deal for the women: men get more out of it than women.

But the theory that Dr. England prefers is that women expect more out of a marriage, emotionally, in particular, and that they therefore are more sensitive to when problems arise. Women are, as she put it, taking the temperature of the relationship, regularly checking to see how it is doing.

And that idea is supported in the studies that have found men often don't even know why it is that they got divorced: one study found that about 10% of divorced husbands claimed to be at a loss as to the reason their marriages ended. None of the women said they didn't know why they'd divorced.

According to a 2003 study, the most common reasons for divorce for both men and women were infidelity and incompatibility. But the majority of women said they'd left because of claims of spousal infidelity, incompatibility, physical abuse, and drug and alcohol abuse. Men, on the other hand, said that they'd more often divorced because of: infidelity, incompatibility, and communication and personality problems. That doesn't disprove the theory of the woman as the one monitoring of the health of the marriage: the study authors attributed the men's explanations as being easier for the men to admit (to others and themselves) than to see their own failings in the marriage.

(For both men and women, the majority say the divorce was the other spouses' fault.)

I wrote earlier this week about how women with more financial resources, specifically those women who contribute more than half of the family's income, have an increased risk of divorce.

What's interesting is that women's socio-economic backgrounds seem to change not just the likelihood of divorce, but why the women leave.

Women from lower socio-economic backgrounds tend to divorce because of domestic violence, drug and alcohol problems (their own or their spouses). Women from wealthier backgrounds tend to leave more for emotional reasons – failure to communicate, personality conflicts, etc. The trick here is that we can't tell if the difference between these groups is because of different life-events in those communities (e.g., domestic violence, drug abuse are more prevalent in families with lower socio-economic backgrounds), or if the women really do value their marriages in different ways.

Reasons for divorce also seem to change over the course of a marriage, but the studies are inconsistent as to how these play out. Some studies say that personality conflicts are more likely to split couples that have been married for a shorter period of time, while those long-time marrieds are more likely to divorce because of problems arising out of an event (e.g., a partner's affair). There are also studies that say couples younger in age are more likely to be divorcing because of drug and alcohol abuse.

To me, the most fascinating thing in all of these reports is that, many commentators blame the rise of divorce on "no-fault" divorce laws (and they largely ignore that the rate of divorce has leveled off), but time after time, sociologists have found out that, regardless the legal claim made, most people are divorcing because of real problems within the marriage – the same sorts of claims that could have been made under the "fault" legal regime.

In other words, the evidence doesn't support any idea that we now conceive of marriage as disposable. In fact, it's quite the contrary.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Is it possible that the wife decided to leave the husband and kids because she is suffering from postpartnum depression? Now we are more aware about postpartnum depression thanks to the recent publicity.

But during the 1960s, it seemed that many women just decided to leave their husbands and kids after the publication of the Feminist Mystique. Maybe it was just the timing, not the book. Not sure if people were aware of postpartnum depression back then.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

No, I don't think postpartum is really a factor. Some studies do say that mental illness is a couple's cause of the divorce, but these are a small percentage compared to, say, those who point to a partner's infidelity.

And I think that the 1960s were a revolutionary time in our society. Therefore, we can't attribute a single cause, particularly one form of mental illness, to explain the huge rise of divorce that followed from the 1960s to 1980s.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Andreia said...

Have you run across any information age differences (May-Dec) in marriage and divorce? Im curious there is anysuch research.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...


Well, there has been research on age heterogamy. And while some studies say age doesn't make a difference, others have found that men who marry older women tend to divorce more, and more so than the older man-younger woman combination.

2:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder why marriages between older women and younger men seem to be more unstable? Is it because men married to older women treat their wives worse, or because these are "last-resort" marriages where one or the other spouse is settling, or because women who marry younger men are more unconventional and therefore footloose and divorce-prone?

11:27 AM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

I wouldn't go so far as to say "settling," but I think that's the closest – that is, that women who are older may feel that their options are narrowing, and thereby choose a partner they have less in common with. It may also have to do with economics: an older woman may be wealthier than a younger man. While that might initially be appealling to the man, both her older age and increased wealth sort of flip the traditional power structure of a marriage upsidedown, which is hard for both partners to handle. It may be at a certain point of age, wealth, etc., that the younger man wants to the more senior partner, or that the woman at some point wants someone who is closer to being her peer.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding younger men and older women, I was puzzled by something. It seems to be an implication that older women earn more money than younger men.

What happens if the younger man already has a MBA and is earning two times what the older woman is earning?

People often are surprised by my age because I look and act younger. I actually FEEL younger than my age for many reasons.

I find myself having more in common with younger people than with people in my age group. Not sure why.

Never thought I would find myself in a relationship with a younger man. We fit so well that it surprises me! We understand each other. He is only a few years younger than I am.

When one talks about older women/younger men, what are the other factors involved in the dynamics of a successful relationship?


12:11 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

Hi, Hayley,

I can't say specifically what happens in a particular age scenario, because as you suggested, how much money the couple is making, their respective ages and personalities, etc. all make a difference. None of the factors we've been talking about work independently; they're all connected. So we're just trying to lay out some general rules and principles for discussion.

The instability factor for older women, younger men may be economics, but it may also be about the power within the couple, I don't know. It may also be that older women are choosing younger men who have other differences (e.g. religion) that become larger problems down the road.

(And I think it's a comparatively new phenomenon being examined regardless.)

1:27 PM  
Blogger Andreia said...

Thanks Ashley. You do such a great job with this stuff!

7:52 AM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

Aw, thanks, Andreia! That's very kind of you to say.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is really cool stuff. Fascinating. Thank you for the well written article, and thanks to all of those who posted questions. I feel like I've had some ahaaaaaa.... moments here. Keep up the good work. Thanks!!!!

12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am 28, and the guy who says he is in love with me is 4 years younger. we met five years ago when i was taking grooming classes for undergrad students in my vacations during my own Post grad. somehow we kept in touch thru emails, mostly on professional and career matters. finshed our studies and went to our separate professions( we both are extremely well placed), but a regular mail from his side dropped in my mail box, updating me about his life. I sometimes replied and sometimes did not; but he ws regular wth his correspondence until one day he wrote to me (three years after our first meeting) that he has always been in love with me and is serious. Being from tradtional upbringing, i gave the age gap the reason (which i thought was actually the real problem) but he thought things could be managed and age wasnt as big a criteria as i was making it out to be. we accidently bumped into each other just once after the grooming class got over but I did not have the courage to meet ever again despite living in the same city all this while. Now its time for me to get married, may be within a year though nothing is final yet and i am still searching for a suitable guy. I still am in touch with this guy thrugh sms, who still feels the same for me. I am confused really. Am i doing the right thing of turning a genuine love down? The guy has neven expected anything in turn also but says he will be hurt if i marry someone else but hopes to be in touch always. Plese suggest what shuld i do?

2:36 AM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

The age gap of four years shouldn't be your concern. Not having spent time together in the last three years should make you cautious though. But whether you pursue it is not something we can comment on, since it's a matter of personal journey, not a matter of science/social science, which is really only the thing we have expertise in. Thanks.

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Widow said...

I don't know if this is different with anyone, but, I feel my marriage is more like 2 roommates rather then a "marriage". W
We are 35, no children and I find he simply does not want to grow up, leave his friends alone and does not want children. I've already put deep into my brain that children is out of the question, but what happens ten years from now when I think differently? Already, I have no hope for this marriage, especially when one does not want to spend time with his wife.
When you think going to the gym and being attractive may help save a relationship, the only one who is believing that is you.

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


If I may weigh in, marrying an older man is not always a good thing. I married a man only ten years older, for a while it was fine. But the age difference seems to increase as we get older! He is now nearing retirement and we are a two entirely different stages of our lives. I suggest women think very hard about marrying someone much older, they will be forced to confront life stages long before they are ready. I do no think this is talked about much. I am considering a divorce because of this. Older men are just that older and less inclined to be flexible. I wish I had thought more about the age differnce a very long time ago.

1:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am seroiously having one. I was very committed to my marriage until I contacted an old client regarding business and he sought to persue more then business. Now 7 months later I want a divorce. The old client has long since gone but he had awakened me to sex again and no I feel trapped in my marriage instead of enjoying it. It happened so fast. I am finding more and more of my friends leaving their husbands to find lovers. How can you make sense of the situation when I don't even understand it myself and yet it's happening all around me.


11:10 AM  
Blogger December said...

Hi, everyone,
I apologize if this isn't exactly the right place to post my comment/question; I couldn't find anyplace else that touched on this topic.
I'm a 60 year old who's been separated for 2 years and divorced (after 35 years) for a year now. I've been in a relationship with a woman 15 years my junior (who's been divorced, after 25 years, for a few months longer than I have) for over a year now. We have a great time together, have a lot of interests in common, and never seem to tire of each other's company. We are starting to talk about the possibility of making this a committed relationship, and I am more concerned about the age difference than she is. The different stages of our lives will require some pretty great adjustments (I'm ready to at least semi-retire and sail for a few weeks at a time several times a year, she's still working hard to get her post divorce finances back in order and to put her daughter thru college). I also worry about what happens 20 years from now (or sooner) and I start to lose my virility (both sexual and all other physical abilities). She says she's thought about it and it doesn't matter, but is that just the "love is blind" thing talking? I would definitely like to continue the relationship. Even consider marraige, but I don't want to leave her alone at 65 or 70 with little chance of finding someone else with whom to share the sunset years of her life. Or, worse, yet to be saddled with taking care of a sick old man. How do these May-Dec. marraiges really work out for the younger spouse? Thanks for your response(s).

7:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a really old thread, but just like me to come late to stuff. Was online researching older women / younger guy relationships as I am 42 and my young gent is 23. Yup. And to date he has not asked how old I am, which either means he doesn't care or... doesn't want to know! But he must surely have formed an opinion on it. Some Harvard study says happiest marriages are childless so that would have some sort of bearing on my kind of differential... possibly? to counter-balance the instability you mention that is largely down to imbalance in economic status? I'm so stupidly immature that in terms of handling ourselves I think he is more mature than me. Well hey ho, it's lots of fun. Tried for a while to pretend I liked older men in stripy shirts with paunches but just can't do it.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just got the news that my wife of 21 years, and the love of my life suddenly wants out! I am 14 years older than her, and this is the same age difference as her parents. She says she has no feelings for me, and can't fake it anymore. We just lost our business and were working at building a new one, she is far in debt, and says she waisted the 21 years, and will be happy single and free, but still depends on me for help in the business, we have a 13 year old she loves, but wants me to take care of alone. All her girlfriends are single, and she looks 28 and is very stunning. Is this mid life, depression, I am stunned, she told me she loved me before she broke down and said it was all a lie! she is having a texting affair but has not done "anything' yet, she also hates sex, but looking at her she looks red hot. She has moved in with her single girlfriend, and i am one lost and confused guy!

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a comment to December...regarding the younger woman older man relationship. I am married to a man who is 21 years my senior. I believe that though there is love, the problems are with stages of life. He is not very understanding of those things that matter to me and is somewhat interested in a practical relationship that is not much of a marriage but more of companionship. It can be quite lonely and it doesn't matter how much money or stability he has. Not knowing your exact situation, I would recommend you seriously discuss your ideal future together. How you visualize it, does it complement her? Do you still think of your ex wife as the first and only true love? Sometimes this too gets in the way of happiness. We were both married before, and though there was a decade between his divorce and our marriage, he is VERY consumed with problems from his first. There is no way he'll consider a family of our own, or to do those things that are congruent with a marriage - discuss the future. I wish I had analyzed it a bit more. Good Luck.

6:38 PM  

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