Since the mid-1970s, it’s been easier for women to leave failing marriages. Not only did they begin to make strides in their careers, the social stigmas of leaving a marriage simply changed with the times.
But contrary to common knowledge, those aren’t the only things driving their actions. According to a new study published in the American Sociological Review, a big factor is whether the husband is gainly employed.
In analyzing 46 years of data on more than 6,300 married couples in the U.S., Harvard sociology professor Alexandra Killewald found an uptick in divorce in the mid-1970s. She also found housework wasn’t much of an issue after 1975, perhaps because women were entering the workforce in greater numbers.
In scrutinizing each partner’s employment and willingness to take on household chores, Killewald — who also used a larger set of census data to determine the wives’ economic dependence on their marriages —pieced together the financial stakes of leaving the union for both partners. Her conclusion: Having a job didn’t preclude a wife from filing for a divorce; in fact, her economic independence didn’t correlate with a higher risk of divorce at all.
What mattered more, especially in recent years, was the husband’s employment status. Though this barely affected the odds of divorce before 1975, in the decades since it’s become a factor that’s hard to ignore, the study suggests. Women began to expect more from their careers, while the expectations remained the same for men. That is, even as women pursued working lives, men were still considered the family breadwinner.
In terms of stats, Killewald found that husbands who aren’t employed full time have a 3.3% chance of getting divorced in a given year, compared with 2.5% for husbands who are working full time.
The Burden of Unemployment
Killewald’s study didn’t go into the financial impacts of living with an unemployed spouse, but it’s not hard to imagine the strain it can put on a marriage. When a steady paycheck is nonexistent, money can become tight, which makes it harder to pay bills on time and deal with everyday household expenses. Late payments can also undermine a good credit score, which in turn can make it harder to apply for family necessities such as auto insurance or mortgage.
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