If you’re married or in a de facto relationship, and you’re worried about your divorce risk, then read on. Once of the greatest risk factors for divorce has been revealed: unemployment. Perhaps surprisingly, the correlation between men’s employment status and divorce risk didn’t extend to whether the wife was also working.
According to a study published in American Sociological Review, the biggest factor leading to divorce is the husband’s job status. Harvard researcher Alexandra Killewald found men who didn’t have jobs, or who had been out of work for a long time, had a statistically higher chance of getting divorced in any given year, compared to those with stable careers.
Many couples fight about money, and that is often a leading factor in divorce proceedings. But this study adds another layer of complexity to those financial issues and to the emotional weight already associated with unemployment. Killewald’s study found that men without jobs increase their divorce risk by roughly 30%.
The research looks at data dating back 46 years to the 1970s. It found that for men who were not employed full time, there was a 3.3% chance they would get divorced in any given year. Compare that to men who did have a full-time job during the same time period, and the chances dropped to 2.5%. That’s what was found from looking at more than 6,300 couples.
“For marriages formed after 1975, husbands’ lack of full-time employment is associated with higher divorce risk, but neither wives’ full-time employment nor wives’ share of household labor is associated with divorce risk,” the study says. “Expectations of wives’ homemaking may have eroded, but the husband breadwinner norm persists.”
Those are a couple of other interesting details the study unearthed. The full-time job status of the wife and division of household labor didn’t have a significant impact on divorce risk. Instead, the real difference had to do with the husband’s job status.
“It is possible that husbands’ less than full-time employment is associated with marital disruption more strongly than wives’, not because of gendered interpretations of lack of full-time employment, but because husbands’ part-time employment or nonemployment is more likely to be involuntary,” the study says. “Involuntary nonemployment may negatively affect marriages more strongly than voluntary nonemployment.”
Unemployment Divorce Risk Only For Men
Killewald’s study buttresses recent work done by Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin, who found that pre-marital births were highest in the regions of the country in which income inequality was highest, which in turn were the areas with the most unemployment among high school graduates.
Cherlin has argued that couples will not marry—and signal that their union is official and permanent—until they believe they are on a stable financial footing or can see a path to a stable financial future. But they will not delay childbirth either. So without jobs or the prospect of jobs, couples end up not married and with kids. This research seems to also suggest that stable marriages are linked to stable jobs, and that both are important for a stable society. “I see those findings about the importance of men’s employment for getting married and staying married as absolutely part of the same cultural phenomenon,” says Killewald.
A similar study was conducted in 2011 by Liana Sayer of Ohio State University and also published in the American Journal of Sociology. That study also found that employment status influences both men’s and women’s decisions to end a marriage.
According to the study, a woman’s employment status has no effect on the likelihood that her husband will opt to leave the marriage. An employed woman is more likely to initiate a divorce than a woman who is not employed, but only when she reports being highly unsatisfied with the marriage.
But the results for male employment status on the other hand were far more surprising. For a man, not being employed not only increases the chances that his wife will initiate divorce, but also that he will be the one who opts to leave. Even men who are relatively happy in their marriages are more likely to leave if they are not employed, the research found.
Taken together, the findings suggest an “asymmetric” change in traditional gender roles in marriage, the researchers say.
That men who are not employed, regardless of their marital satisfaction, are more likely to initiate divorce suggests that a marriage in which the man does not work “does not look like what men think a marriage is supposed to,” the researchers write. In contrast, women’s employment alone does not encourage divorce initiated by either party. That implies that a woman’s choice to enter the workforce is not a violation of any marriage norms. Rather, being employed merely provides financial security that enables a woman to leave when all else fails.
“These effects probably emanate from the greater change in women’s than men’s roles,” the researchers write. “Women’s employment has increased and is accepted, men’s nonemployment is unacceptable to many, and there is a cultural ambivalence and lack of institutional support for men taking on ‘feminized’ roles such as household work and emotional support.”
The research used data on over 3,600 couples taken from the US National Survey of Families and Households.
One solution is to encourage a wider view of what a husband’s role in a family is. “We talk a lot about the changes in women’s experience,” says Killewald, “but we haven’t done a lot of thinking about what it would be like for men to have a similar expansion in the ways they do masculinity.”
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