A new study published in the American Sociological Review has found that heterosexual marriages in which the husband does not work full-time face greater risk of ending in divorce.
Harvard sociologist Alexandra Killewald examined 6,309 couples married between 1968 and 2013 in order to discover "whether marital stability is primarily associated with the economic gains to marriage or with the gendered lens through which spouses’ earnings and employment are interpreted", and "whether the determinants of marital stability have changed over time".
In pursuit of an answer to this latter question, Killewald divided her data set in two, comparing couples married before 1975 with those who married after. She found that in the post-1975 set "neither wives’ full-time employment nor wives’ share of household labor is associated with divorce risk." This stands in contrast to the earlier cohort, where the yearly probability of divorce rose to 1.5 percent for couples where housework was shared equally, from 1.1 percent for relationships where the wives took responsibility for 75% of the household chores.
The adverse implications of dividing domestic duties equally within this earlier group reflects the prevalence of traditional gender expectations during the late 1960s and early 1970s, during which household work was still predominantly considered ’women’s work’. Similarly, the erosion of this correlation in the later group is demonstrative of changing societal attitudes towards women and their evolving roles within marital relationships.
However, whilst Killewald’s study shows that women who are not the primary or sole homemakers do not experience an increased divorce risk, a husband’s breadwinner status remains relevant. The study found that husbands in full time work had a 3.3 percent chance of getting divorced in any given year, compared with the 2.5% yearly risk for their peers in full-time employment. Though a 0.8% rise in divorce probability might not seem significant, it’s important to keep in mind that this applies to each year of the marriage, rather than the marriage as a whole.
Curiously, the pre-1975 set displayed a inverse relationship between full-time employment and divorce. Here, for couples where the husband worked full-time, the divorce risk was slightly higher, at 1.1% per year compared with 1% for husbands not in full-time employment.
So why the change? According to the study, it doesn’t have anything to do with how much money the husband makes: the figures stayed the same, regardless of his salary. What Killewald does call attention to, however, is the "ongoing symbolic value of men’s employment for marital stability". In other words, regardless of the wife’s economic independence, the husband is still seen as the primary provider. Of course, deviation from gender expectations as a cause of marital disruption is just one interpretation. Killewald also notes that husbands’ lack of full-time employment is "more likely to be involuntary" and thus can lead to a decrease in mental wellbeing which can put strain on a marriage.
The study thus calls for further research on the "experiences of deliberately non-traditional households", whilst acknowledging that their relative scarcity "illustrates the consistency of the breadwinner norm". Killewald’s study could be a useful springboard for closer assessment of modern masculinity in relation to work, the home and marriage.