Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Braver on Who Leaves the Marriage . . . and Why It Matters

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.

Table 7.1: Listing of Factors Contributing to the Breakdown of Marriage and Decision to Divorce
Factor
Mom %
Dad %
Mom Rank
Dad Rank

Gradual growing apart, losing a sense of closeness

57
52
1
1

Serious differences in lifestyle and/or values

54
33
2
2

Not feeling loved or appreciated by spouse

45
30
3
6

Spouse not able or willing to meet major needs

41
32
4
4

Emotional problems of spouse

38
24
5
11

Husband's extramarital affair

37
9
6
22

Severe and intense fighting, frequent conflict

36
33
7
3

Frequently felt put down or belittled by spouse

35
22
8
13

Spouse not reliable

33
21
9
14

Problems and conflicts with rotes, i.e., division of responsibility for household jobs or other chores outside of house

29
21
10
15

Husband's alcohol abuse

29
5
11
25

Violence between you and spouse

20
10
16
21

Husband's drug abuse

19
3
18
26

Wife's extramarital affair

5
30
24
5

Wife's alcohol abuse

3
8
27
24

Wife's drug abuse

3
6
27
24

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.

5 comments:

ironrailsironweights said...

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.

I would imagine that a substantial percentage of divorces are mutual decisions. Both spouses come to the conclusion, after talking over the matter, that a divorce is the best alternative. One of them then has to file the papers, and for whatever reasons it's more often than not the wife.

The scenario in which one spouse, usually the husband, is shocked when he's served with papers, having no inkling they were coming, probably doesn't happen too often.

Peter

Φ said...

Braver addresses this possibility with his own survey. I do not recall the percentage of couples who volunteered that the decision was "mutual" but it was not substantial.

trumwill said...

I find that a majority of women are happy with the decision to divorce to be interesting in light of the polls I've seen that suggest that people in troubled marriages who get divorced report lower rates of happiness than do people in troubled marriages who stick it out. That could, however, be disproportionately weighted by male unhappiness with divorce the same way that most parenthood-makes-people-unhappy is weighted down by those with unplanned pregnancies. Or perhaps that's something that has changed in the last 20 years.

Another thing that I meant to comment on below is that since 1987, I think that parental guardianship is something that has shifted in favor of men. When I was young, there was the presumption that the mother would get primary custody and now joint custody is assumed in a lot more places. Further, fathers have a more credible claim to sole custody. They'll rarely win it, but it can be used as a bargaining chip. I hear of this tactic being used a lot more frequently than I used to. A very positive development.

On a sidenote, I suspect that one of the reasons that women fare better emotionally in divorce is that women tend to have better support networks. That's something that guys really need to work on.

Anonymous said...

Gradual growing apart, losing a sense of closeness
Serious differences in lifestyle and/or values
Not feeling loved or appreciated by spouse


All different ways of saying she is bored with you now. You no longer make her gina tingle, buh-bye.

Justin said...

Women who won't be satisfied, or men who don't make the effort? Who shall we blame? The higher numbers in the womens column does support the idea that women are more critical then men.

And how do we interpret the disparity in percentages related to the extramarital affair? The cheated-on spouse says that is the problem, but only a fraction of the cheaters say it was the cause? Like, I cheat, but then tell the interviewer the marriage broke up because "spouse not meeting my major needs"???