Women Initiate Divorce Twice as Frequently as Men

Researchers have found that women initiate divorce twice as often as men, with wives reporting high levels of tension while their husbands' levels are low.

By Michael Burton
Updated: December 04, 2017

Research Shows That Women Initiate Divorce at Almost Double the Rate of Men


A new University of Michigan study claims that women initiate divorce more than twice as much than men.

Research completed by Dr. Kira Birditt of the U-M Institute for Social Research followed 355 different couples across 16 years monitoring marital tensions between each couple. The results showed that while a husband’s tension could grow quickly, what would end up resulting in divorce was tension experienced by the wife. Her data was collected as part of the “The Early Years of Marriage Project,” which is the longest running longitudinal study of marriage and divorce.

Published in The Journal of Developmental Psychology, researchers began this study back in 1986, with couples being interviewed early on in their marriage at four and nine months, and then at year two, four, seven, and finally 16 years of marriage.

Over time, wives reported high levels of marital tension, while husbands reported lower levels of such feelings as their relationship progressed. During their interviews, subjects were asked questions regarding irritation and resentment and how often they would experience feelings of tension after fighting or arguing with their spouse.

Women also reported high levels of tension upon entering the marriage, whereas men reported lower levels early on, with tension growing slowly over time.

"The association with divorce was greater if men reported low levels of tension when women reported a higher accumulation of tension," says Birditt.

"It could reflect a lack of investment in the relationship on the husband's part, they might believe it's unnecessary to change or adjust their behavior."

At the 16-year mark, close to 40% of the couples in the study had divorced, comparable to the most recent divorce rates from the American Psychological Association.

Marital Pundits Continue to Explore Why Women Initiate Divorce More Frequently

Nailing down exactly what the divorce rate is turns out to be a difficult – and controversial – task. Dr. Paul Amato is a professor at Pennsylvania State University whose research focuses on family-related issues, including marital quality and divorce. He believes that today’s lifetime risk of divorce is between 42 and 45%. “And if you throw in permanent separations that don’t end in divorce, then the overall likelihood of marital disruption is pushing 50%.” By those estimates, the subjects in Dr. Birditt’s study were divorcing at a slightly lower rate than the national average – but not by much.

In 2015, the American Sociological Association published findings similar to Dr. Birditt’s research in a study that focused not just on marriages, but on all heterosexual relationships. Dr. Michael Rosenfeld, a professor in Stanford University’ Department of Sociology, studied more than 2,200 different people between the ages of 19 and 94 during a six-year period. He found that men and women in non-marital relationships initiated break-ups at roughly the same rate, but that close to 69% of all divorces were initiated by women.

As Women Initiate Divorce Frequently, Breakups in Non-Marital Relationships Remain Gender-Neutral 

Rosenfeld stated that the real surprise from his work was that women and men proved to be equally likely to pull the plug in non-marital relationships, yet in a traditional marriage, women were more likely to initiate a divorce than men.

As to why this is the case, Rosenfeld points to past research in which social scientists argued that women were sensitive to the difficulties in a relationship; however, if this sensitivity were the main catalyst for ending a relationship, women should initiate break-ups in both marital and non-marital relationships at the same rate.

He adds that women have had a major role in seeking a divorce in the United States, claiming that data has been suggesting this since the 1940s.

"I assumed, and I think other scholars assumed, that women's role in breakups was an essential attribute of heterosexual relationships, but it turns out that women's role in initiating breakups is unique to heterosexual marriage."

Dr. Douglas LaBier, founder of the Center for Progressive Development, attempted to explain Rosenfeld’s findings in Psychology Today. He claims that when married couples experience difficulties, it’s usually the woman who expresses dissatisfaction about the the relationship, whereas men are more likely to be content with the status of their marriage.

So while men are troubled by their wife’s concerns, they often remain in an “OK” position with the status quo: staying in rather than ending the relationship.

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By Michael Burton| November 16, 2017

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