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  • A new UK study finds that home ownership and having married parents explain about one-quarter of the lower divorce risk among more educated women. Tweet This
  • Today, the “freedom” to dissolve any marriage means the less educated have their disadvantage from family strain compounded by not having married parents to also serve as a “barrier to divorce.”  Tweet This

In Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, a mill owner is approached by one of his weavers seeking guidance on how to obtain a divorce, which was more common at that time among the elite. The mill owner dismisses him because the weaver doesn’t have a suit to wear to petition for a Private Act of Parliament, much less the ability to bear other associated costs. In today’s England, however, the poor divorce more frequently than the wealthy.

The change from divorce being a privilege of the elite to a cost born disproportionately by the disadvantaged has taken place in many countries besides England. Most explanations echo William Goode’s 1963 contention that when divorce first emerges, only the elite have access to it, but after it becomes widespread, the poor will divorce more because of family strain. That could certainly explain the contrast between Dickens’ times and our own, but in a recent study published in Demographic Research, Diederik Boertien and Juno Härkönen question whether family strain fully explains why British women with more education are less likely to divorce today.

It’s easy to imagine that the more educated experience less family strain: educated folks tend to be wealthier. Thus, they can enjoy Viking Cruises together, or at least afford the whole foods that leave them feeling better than cheap processed foods. At a minimum, they are less likely to fight about one of them running up the water bill with long showers. Intuition does not fail us here, but it only explains about one-quarter of the lower divorce risk among the more educated. That is, Boertien and Härkönen found that the greater resources of the better-educated did, in fact, enhance marital satisfaction, but most of the marital stability advantage associated with education remained unexplained.

They then tested whether “barriers to divorce” are greater among the more educated. In Dickens’ time, the barriers to divorce were certainly greater among the less educated: The poor weaver had to die in order to get out of a marriage in which his wife reappeared in his life periodically to sell whatever she could find in his apartment to buy alcohol.

While the legal barriers to divorce have become more class-neutral, Boertien and Härkönen introduce the question of whether the more educated are more constrained by other barriers to divorce than the less educated. Goode’s conception was that family strain would dominate reasons for splitting up after divorce became widespread, but Boertien and Härkönen focused on barriers created by having resources, rather than not having them—resources that make the risk of divorce lower for a given amount of family strain.

They identified two “assets” that explained about one-quarter of the lower divorce risk among more educated women in their study: home ownership and having married parents. Note that higher barriers to divorce explained as much of the marital stability advantage among the educated as a family strain model did. Home ownership can be explained in practical terms: either people are less likely to divorce if they have a valuable joint asset that must be divided somehow, or people with more confidence in their marriages are more likely to invest in a home.

Having parents with an intact marriage is an asset that is less economic, and I believe that its importance depends on what kinds of marriages are being dissolved. Back when the legal barriers to divorce were high and divorce was highly stigmatized, many who sought advice on how to divorce had marriages that were hardly unions. Similarly, abused wives may have had to stay, but over time, women’s economic independence made it easier to exit these unions. If you end up in the emergency room, it may not matter much whether you grew up watching your parents resolve their differences or split over them. But the story changes when what Boertien and Härkönen call “moderately well-functioning marriages” are at risk of dissolving. When lesser evils than continued violence, repeated adultery, or child abuse cause real and important discontent between spouses, our parents’ behavior matters. When divorce is an option for escaping the unhappy or unfulfilling union, it matters a lot how we saw our parents deal with their differences. United parents may provide social pressure for their children to stay married, but they have also proved it is possible, and likely role-modeled something of how to make a struggling marriage work.

Like homeownership, the asset of never-divorced parents is distributed along class lines. Both because poverty really does increase family strain, and because children raised in intact homes generally have higher educational attainment, those who enter marriage with less education are also less likely to have been reared in an intact union. In Boertien and Härkönen’s terminology, they have lower barriers to divorce.

Today, the “freedom” to dissolve any marriage means the less educated have their disadvantage from family strain compounded by not having married parents to also serve as a “barrier to divorce.” So, while we could blame the victim’s parents for not setting a good example or blame the victim for not overcoming having been socialized to split when there are difficulties, we must recognize that the poor suffered disproportionately when there was low access to divorce, and they are suffering disproportionately now that there is high access to divorce. Perhaps it is overly optimistic to imagine that a divorce culture somewhere in the middle would be less social stratifying, but I think it stands a better chance than today’s situation. Neither creating equal access to homeownership, nor equal access to having married parents is easy, but the evidence from this UK study suggests that both could help.

Laurie DeRose is a Research Assistant Professor at the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland at College Park and a senior fellow with the Institute for Family Studies. She is also Director of Research for the World Family Map project.