Women Breadwinners More Likely to Divorce: Study

New study done at Western Washington University shows that women who earn 60% of the household income were 40% more likely to divorce than women who earned less. Read the facts and figures, as well as ideas why this is the case.

By Josh D. Simon
Updated: July 17, 2014
divorce news

Way back in 1964, when those four grinning moptops (known in limited circles as The Beatles) crooned "Can't buy me love," media, fans and critics furiously debated the song's meaning. And while it's likely that some of the speculation was pretty far out -- it was the 60s, after all -- there is no doubt whatsoever that anyone, anywhere, at any time and in any way suggested that the unkempt Liverpudlians were predicting divorce trends in 2010. 

But hey: score one more prescient point for the Beatles, because they were right on the money (yes, regrettably, pun intended).

Here's the scoop: in a 25-year study that will be published in October's issue of the Journal of Family Issues, researchers at Western Washington University observed that, among 2,500 women married between 1979 and 2002, those who brought home 60% or more of their household income were 40% more likely to divorce than women earned less.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, was that it didn't matter how much the wives earned relative to their husbands. She could earn $50,000 while he earned $30,000, or she could earn $150,000 while he earned $100,000. What mattered was the ratio -- 60% or more -- and not the actual dollar amount.

So what's behind all this breadwinning gloom and doom? Western Washington University Sociologist Jay Teachman has a few ideas: 

  1. Financially secure women can more easily live on their own, which makes divorce a more feasible option. 
  2. Some men can struggle mightily with the fact that their wife brings home more bacon (and other things that their higher salary empowers them to purchase). "When marriages form, there's expectations," Teachman told the New York Post. "So, if you get new information about the relationship, you're likely to think, 'This isn't what I bargained for.' There's some wounded egos, too. The man is going to expect he'll make more money, and the wife is going to expect she's not. When neither of those things happens, it strains the marriage." 
  3. Financially successful wives may start to "look down" on their husbands, which can lead to marital breakdown.
  4. Women who earn more are likely to spend more time at work and less time at home -- which can put strain and stress on a marriage. 

Still, Teachman admitted that pointing to a unqualified"cause and effect" link remains elusive, because it's unclear whether the marriage itself, or the wife's ambition to get a better job (and/or the husband's negative reaction to that), are triggers for the marriage problems. However, the lack of a clear-cut cause doesn't invalidate the surprising discovery that a woman's earning power is a strong factor in divorce.

Teachmen isn't sure how the study will evolve, but has expressed a desire to try the study again in 10 years with a younger pool of wives. "The group of women [in the study] are the last generation, who may not have expected to have the careers they ended up having," he stated. 

And who knows? Maybe that next study will be all the Beatles need to form a reunion tour, headlined by their smash new single Can Buy me a Divorce

What it lacks in appeal and romance it's sure to make up for by being on every sociologist's iPod from here to Liverpool.


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September 12, 2010

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