- Regardless of their own earnings, women still expect their husbands to provide for the family, and men who cannot do this are less likely to marry and more likely to divorce. Tweet This
- The myriad benefits of a stable marriage for individuals in the U.S. have become increasingly rare, and more confined to white, well-educated women from intact families. Tweet This
- For women with less education, marital prospects are more likely to be confined to less educated men with unstable employment and low earnings—men who are less attractive marital partners. Tweet This
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in 19th-century Russia. Today in Europe, happy families are more alike in that they are most often found among the well-educated. Poorly educated men and women are less likely to marry, and if they do marry, are more likely to separate or divorce.1 In new research in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, Michael J.Rosenfeld and Katharina Roesler show that the same is true in the United States: poorly educated women are less likely to marry, and—if they do marry—are increasingly likely to divorce.
Using data from the National Survey of Family Growth from 1973 to 2017, Rosenfeld and Roesler examined first marriages for women aged 15-49 and whether these marriages ended in divorce. Over this time period, there were radical changes in marriage in American society. People became less likely to marry overall, and more likely to cohabit before marriage. Rosenfeld and Roesler found the percentage of women who cohabitated with their partner before marriage rose from 11% in 1970 to 69% in 2011. At the same time, the proportion of women with a college degree when they married rose dramatically as educational opportunities expanded in the U.S. (in 1960, only 5% of women had a college degree when first married; by 2011, 43% of women had a college degree at first marriage). In addition, women with a college degree became more likely to marry than women without a college degree. The proportion of women marrying in their teens fell dramatically (from 52% in 1960 to 4% in 2015), and the proportion of women marrying who came from an intact family fell from about 79% in 1972 to 65% in 2006. Last, the proportion of interracial marriages rose from about 5% in 1975 to 12% in 2012.
These changes also affected divorce. Rosenfeld and Roesler found that cohabitation before marriage, interracial marriage, and coming from a non-intact marriage were positively associated with divorce (all else being equal), although the effect of these factors did not increase greatly over time. Black women and women who married in their teens were also more likely to divorce than others, and this effect grew larger over time. The same was true for women without BAs, who became increasingly likely to divorce over time.
Thus, divorce is still more likely for those who cohabit before marriage, for interracial marriages, for women who marry young, and for women from non-intact families, but it is increasingly likely for women without a BA, for black women, and for women who marry young. Given that women with less education and black women are less likely to marry in the first place, this means the myriad benefits of a stable marriage for individuals in the U.S. have become increasingly rare, and more confined to white, well-educated women from intact families. Part of the reason for this is that white, well-educated women are more likely to marry similar men who are likely to have stable employment and comparatively high earnings, and marriages to such men are less likely to result in divorce. For women with less education, marital prospects are more likely to be confined to less educated men with unstable employment and low earnings, and such men are less attractive as marital partners. That is, regardless of their own earnings, women still expect their husbands to provide for the family, and men who cannot do this are less likely to marry and more likely to be divorced. As a result, access to that most basic source of human well-being—a happy, stable family—is becoming more unequal.
Rosemary L. Hopcroft is Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the author of Evolution and Gender: Why it matters for contemporary life, (Routledge 2016) and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Evolution, Biology, & Society (Oxford, 2018).
1. Esping-Andersen, G. (2016). Families in the 21st Century (p. 113). Stockholm: SNS förlag.