In an article published on this blog, Harry Benson of the Marriage Foundation reflects on the falling divorce rate in the UK over the last 25 years, a consequence of fewer women petitioning for divorce. According to Benson, “men have been behaving progressively better over the last 25 years.” He asserts that men are now more likely to make a deliberate decision to get married, rather than slide into marriage under social pressure. This results in increased commitment leading to women being less likely to sue for divorce.
One can understand the narrative that men are the guilty party when women initiate divorce. The evidence shows that women are significantly worse off financially following divorce. Five years after a divorce, a man has an income that is 25% higher than before the divorce, whereas the woman’s income is 9% lower. The poverty rate for divorced women in the UK is three times the rate of men. This leads to the assumption that if a woman decides to get divorced, the man is likely to have been seriously at fault.
This narrative assumes that women have a practical approach towards marriage and divorce, but perhaps their priorities lie elsewhere.
In The Washington Post, Michael J. Rosenfeld discussed why women are more desirous of marriage, yet more likely to become dissatisfied and initiate divorce. He told the story of one woman who initially reported a good relationship with her husband-to-be: “He is very clever, fun, and sweet. I respect him and feel like we are equals on values, intellect, and humor.” She noted, however, “It is not excellent because I wish that he was more romantic. He’s very practical.” Four years later, they divorced because, as she explained, “I used to be a very happy optimistic person and it was like he was slowly starving my soul.”
An article on DivorcedMoms.com, a website by and for divorced mothers, also probes this question. While spousal infidelity and housework are mentioned—it is the “touchy-feely” elements that come into play. The author notes that women often initiate divorce when they experience boredom: “Women very often need more than their man can provide, especially when it comes to intellectual and emotional intimacy and a sense of adventure and surprise.” He goes on to explain how, even where there were financial and familial reasons for keeping a marriage intact, some women may cheat either when their needs are not being met or as a way of getting an emotionally-absent husbands’ attention.
There are other reasons why women may be less inhibited when it comes to divorce. The majority of children live exclusively or mainly with the mother following a divorce. As a result of this, significant assets are awarded to mothers on the basis that they are caring for children regardless of who is at fault. Lifetime maintenance payments in the UK can be awarded based on the man’s ability to pay and carry on regardless of improvements in the ex-wife’s financial situation.
Baroness Hale, one of the chief architects of family law in the UK for the past 40 years, explained it this way in a speech she gave in November 2018:
The fault-based system of divorce was ostensibly and in practice abandoned. Married mothers gained a status equal to that of married fathers while they were together and in practice became a good deal more powerful once they were apart. This was because of the importance attached to keeping the children in a stable home with their primary caregiver, still in the great majority of cases the children’s mother.
If dealing with the challenges of living with another human being can be avoided while keeping your children and only being slightly worse off financially, there will invariably come times for women when the temptation to do this must be great.
For his part, Benson argues that economic factors affect both sexes alike and therefore do not provide the explanation. This is where he makes his biggest mistake. First, we know that marriage rates in the UK are at their lowest on record and, as Benson’s own research shows, it has increasingly become the preserve of higher-income groups. We also know that the wealthy are less likely to get divorced, perhaps at least partly because of men’s higher income. We would, therefore, expect that as the rate of marriage declines and becomes restricted to the most privileged in society, so would the rate of divorce.
But here in the UK, there are other factors that come into play. We have a tax and benefits system that is designed to encourage the dual-income family. While there are strong financial incentives to go it alone for those with lower levels of income—these are not the people who get married. For the high earning, two-income marrieds, we have created a system of tax credits, help with childcare and tax thresholds which, as long as they stay together, will leave them better off. For example, if we look at a family with two children and total earnings of 60,000 pounds, they will pay 6,520 pounds less in taxes than a single-income family with the same total earnings.
As these two-earner families become the norm, there is a big increase in fixed household expenses like commuting, childcare, and mortgages leaving little give in the system. Women cannot increase their hours of work as they might have done in the past because they are already working full time. In her book The Two-Income Trap, Elizabeth Warren described how the ubiquity of two-earner households left families in the United States with more precarious financial circumstances in relation to bankruptcy. I suggest that here in the UK, similar circumstances are making women think twice about divorce.
Finally, women’s presence in the workplace forces them to rely increasingly on their men for child care support. This is not so easy to come by once you get divorced.
Since the middle of the last century, we assumed that marriage was evolving from a union whose primary purpose was largely functional to one in which individual self-fulfillment and companionship are the goals. This companionship approach to marriage left it very vulnerable—particularly when women do not feel fulfilled.
The lowering rates of female-initiated divorce may also reflect a slowly emerging new model of marriage that is not only based on companionship but has social functions, such as the care of children and the elderly, as well as economic functions reflected in the necessity of two incomes. This form of marriage might actually leave women happier. As they perceive the other benefits of marriage, the self-defeating pressures created by the expectation of personal fulfillment might reduce.
What, then, is one to make of Benson’s link between divorce rates and what he attributes to men’s bad behavior? To be clear, Benson does not say that men who initiate divorce are “bounders and cads” who discard their wives irresponsibly, whereas women who divorce their husbands do so because their husbands behaved badly.
On the other hand, he does not distance himself from such a travesty. Divorce has at least as much to do with women’s behavior as men’s. And Benson’s analysis points us away from the things that we can do about divorce rates. Society’s influence on behavior is necessarily indirect. If we want stronger marriages and fewer divorces, we need to understand the social and economic functions of marriage as well as the role it plays for the individuals involved. We need to focus on the big influences on marital demise, such as those public policies that incentivize single parenthood and divorce.
Belinda Brown is a social anthropologist who speaks and writes on family and gender issues. She is the author of The Private Revolution: the role of women in the Polish underground movement. Further links to her work can be found here.
Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.