In Chapter 7 of Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths, Sanford Braver discusses the question of who initiates divorce and why. The answer to the "who" question is straightforward: all studies consistently show that divorce is initiated by the mother in two-thirds of all cases. In fact, while men initiate divorces at about the same rate as in 1950, the rate among women has risen six-fold, accounting for the entirety of the increase in the divorce rate over the last 50 years. This fact is evident from both studies of court filings and survey data, although it supposedly still surprises many people when they learn of it. Braver reports on his own research showing that three years after the divorce, women view the divorce far more positively than men. When women are granted custody of the children, fully two-thirds of them are happy with the divorce even when the husband had initiated it. Among non-custodial fathers, only 50% of the initiators were happy that they had done so, and only 38% were happy with the divorces that their wives had initiated.
Braver also quotes a 1989 study from the National Center of Health Statistics that shows women with children as significantly more likely to be the initiator of their divorces than women without children.*
The following table shows the reasons that both men and women give for their divorces. This data was taken from surveys of divorcing couples; thus, the differing accounts that men and women give can be directly compared. Note that the percentages shown reflect the number of respondents affirming the listed factor as "Very Important" to the breakdown of the marriage and the decision to divorce.
Gradual growing apart, losing a sense of closeness
Serious differences in lifestyle and/or values
Not feeling loved or appreciated by spouse
Spouse not able or willing to meet major needs
Emotional problems of spouse
Husband's extramarital affair
Severe and intense fighting, frequent conflict
Frequently felt put down or belittled by spouse
Spouse not reliable
Problems and conflicts with rotes, i.e., division of responsibility for household jobs or other chores outside of house
Husband's alcohol abuse
Violence between you and spouse
Husband's drug abuse
Wife's extramarital affair
Wife's alcohol abuse
Wife's drug abuse
The respondents are characterized, here and in the book, as mothers and fathers; the implication is that only divorcees with children participated in the survey. As we can see, respondents could and did list multiple factors as "very important". Significantly, the reasons -- infidelity and abuse -- that, in the public imagination, drive most divorces turn out to be infrequently listed. Infidelity is cited by women in only 37% of divorces and by men in only 30%. And domestic violence didn't even make the top ten reasons. In contrast, the reasons most often cited are the least forensic: "growing apart", "lifestyle differences", "not appreciated", "needs not met".
We the readers do not have access to Braver's survey data, but considering that multiple causes for a divorce could be listed, it would be interesting to see where the overlaps occur. It is possible that, for instance, the "touch-feely" reasons are often accompanied by at least one more-substantive reason like chemical dependency or frequent conflict. However, Braver appears to have the integrity to have let us known if this were obviously the case.
Taken at face value, the survey shows that either the common belief that women only initiate divorce for really good reasons is far from the reality, or the standard of what constitutes a "really good reason" has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Conservative commentators have almost certainly fallen victim to the first delusion; however, the latter explanation appears to account for the behavior among women in the broader society. As Braver writes:
There is no question that the women's movement has made fundamental positive changes in the opportunities and equality available to both women and men. I agree with most informed observers that the loosening of sex roles has increased opportunity and flexibility and widened the options offered to men as well as women, and improved the quality of lives of all members of the family. This is why I have always been a supporter of the women's movement. Despite these unmistakable benefits, according to influential author Shere Hite in her book, The Hite Report on the Family: Growing Up Under Patriarchy, the women's movement also contended that the traditional nuclear family was "an essentially repressive one" . . . .
As David Popenoe writes: "If men in families can't be reformed, the argument goes, let's throw them out. This perspective typically envisions the nuclear family . . . as a 'patriarchal invention'" . . . .
As these views took hold of the thinking of mainstream society, they undoubtedly also contributed to women's current level of dissatisfaction in marriage. Men have had their consciousness raised as well: men today are performing their roles as fathers and husbands somewhat, but not dramatically, better than in the sixties. But wives' standard of acceptance of husbands' behavior has changed far faster than most husbands' behavior. As women have raised their consciousness, their degree of tolerance for unrewarding marriages or for their husbands' behavior and shortcomings has correspondingly decreased.
* This study, cited in an endnote, is slightly problematic because the numbers given -- 56% of divorces among childless couples are initiated by women while 65% among couples with children are initiated by women -- doesn't combine to get anywhere close to the two-thirds number, unless almost no divorces occur among childless couples. Which would be a pretty depressing commentary on parenthood.