Men who aren’t employed full-time are one third more likely to divorce, new study claims

As experienced family lawyers, we know all too well the stresses and strains that can occur in relationships. Some of them can be worked out over time, but others cannot, and in a recent study conducted by a Harvard University professor, a new area of modern life is apparently to blame for marriage splits.

Over the years, we’ve heard every reason under the sun for why marriages have sadly broken down. It’s fair to say that contemporary relationships have done away with a lot of those traditional barriers that once kept women within the home, as they are now free to pursue their own careers with the support of their partner.

However, this new research, conducted by Harvard sociology professor, Alexandra Killewald, has highlighted the startling fact that one traditional concept still seems to be firmly entrenched within relationships, to the point of break-up.

As your go-to legal consultants for expert advice, we thought we would highlight the main findings from the research, and explain exactly why it should get you thinking about your own situation.

What’s the study and what did they find?

The study, titled Money, Work, and Marital Stability: Assessing Change in the Gendered Determinants of Divorce, analysed 6,300 different-sex couples over 46 years, where both spouses were aged between 18 and 55.

The reason for the research was to examine whether any correlations existed between divorce and certain aspects of a marriage. These included a couples’ division of labour, their overall financial situation, and the economic prospects of both parties. The results were then compared against married couples from 1974 and earlier, to consider how needs and expectations had changed within modern marriages.

The two most important findings were that:

  1. For the past four decades, husbands who are not in full-time employment have a 3.3% chance of getting divorced in any given year, while for husbands who are employed full-time, this drops to 2.5%. This may sound small, but in reality, husbands who do not work full-time are a third more likely to have their marriage end in divorce.
  2. For both the pre-1974 marriages and the post-1975 marriages, financial factors were not an issue in the breakdown of the marriage in question.

It is worth noting at this point that the study in question did not include same-sex couples, and did not look at men who choose to stay home with the children. Also, the vast majority of men without a full-time job in this sample were involuntarily unemployed.

What’s interesting is when we compare this to the to the pre-1974 group, and their main reason for a split, they instead look at the division of household chores. According to previous data from 2012, in 1975, wives spent 3.9 times as many hours as men doing housework, while in 2009/2010, this dropped to 1.7 times as long. This is still 70% more, but there is clearly a significant shift towards a more even division of household labour.

Also, couples who married before 1975, and who split the housework equally, were around 36% likelier to get divorced than those couples where wives did 75% of the housework. Post-1975 however, there has been no correlation between the housework and the marriage split.

Regardless of this seeming shift towards more equality then, why does it seem that the stereotypical role of the man as the breadwinner is still very much an important factor in a marriage?

What’s the reason?

On the one hand, Professor Killewald explained that this could be due to changing expectations regarding the division of housework, and how they have been welcomed by wives. Husbands are expected to contribute to the household more than ever before.

Killewald also found that for couples who married after 1974, neither wives’ full-time employment nor the housework were tied to risk of divorce. She stated: “For contemporary couples, wives can combine paid and unpaid labour in various ways without threatening the stability of their marriage.”

This could be because the feminist movement has allowed a freer attitude towards women taking on traditionally male-dominated roles, but by contrast, no such transformation has occurred with men, and their roles and responsibilities are still very much the same. She added: “While contemporary wives need not embrace the traditional female home-maker role to stay married, contemporary husbands face a higher risk of divorce when they don’t fulfil the stereotypical breadwinner role.”

It is possible that these changing times have resulted in confusion about couple’s roles within relationships, and as a result, those husbands who don’t work full-time may be perceived as “breaking a ‘central component’ of the marital contract”.

However, Killewald does also consider other theories of explanation; for example, it is possible that men take unemployment harder than women, which in turn results in more strain on the marriage. The fact that finances don’t play an important role in the break-up of a marriage, coupled with the fact that the prospect of the woman being financially stable after a divorce is good, suggests that it is more the psychological strain of unemployment for the husband that is far more important.

Killewald concluded: “Often when scholars or the media talk about work-family policies or work-family balance, they focus mostly on the experiences of women. Although much of the responsibility for negotiating that balance falls to women, my results suggest one way that expectations about gender and family roles and responsibilities affect men’s lives, too: men who aren’t able to sustain full-time work face heightened risk of divorce. Expectations of wives’ home-making may have eroded, but the husband breadwinner norm persists.”

There are plenty of other studies that add further validation to these results, such as the research published in 2011 surrounding employment and divorce, which suggested that pressure on husbands to be breadwinners still largely remains. The important thing to remember though is that marriages split for a multitude of complex reasons, so the only way you’re going to fully understand your own position where the law is concerned is to talk to a professional.

We hope that today’s post has given you something to think about if you’re considering divorce or have just started proceedings. If you would like any more information, why not use us a sounding board? Don’t hesitate to get; you can call us on 020 7381 8111, or via email at [email protected].

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