The value placed on fidelity — especially male fidelity — has arguably never been higher. In the late 19th century in the United States, an epidemic of venereal disease plagued respectable middle-class wives because so many of their husbands frequented prostitutes. In the 1920s, Somerset Maugham’s play “The Constant Wife” raised eyebrows because its heroine rejects the urging of friends and family to follow convention and ignore her husband’s affair. And as late as the 1950s and early 1960s, marriage counselors routinely responded to a woman’s complaints about her husband’s infidelity by asking whether she had provoked it by not keeping herself “well groomed.”
2. Married women who work put in a “second shift” at home.
Employed wives with young children do, on average, spend 21
3 hours more per week on housework and paid work than their husbands do. But that comes out to an extra 20 minutes a day, hardly a full second shift. And once the early months of child-rearing are over, the average total workload of most husbands and wives (time spent in paid and unpaid work combined) is now virtually identical, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wives spend more time on unpaid household work than their husbands, but husbands spend more time on paid work.
The real gender inequality in marriage stems from the tendency to regard women as the default parent, the one who, in the absence of family-friendly work policies, is expected to adjust her paid work to shoulder the brunt of domestic responsibilities. Women who quit their jobs or cut their hours suffer a wage penalty that widens over the years, even if they return to the job market and work continuously for two more decades. Over a lifetime, even a temporary absence from the workforce can cost a woman hundreds of thousands of dollars, making her more economically vulnerable in case of divorce or the death of her spouse.
3. Divorce is harmful for women and children.
Divorce rates have been falling for 30 years, but the freedom to leave a dysfunctional marriage can be a lifesaver for women, who initiate two-thirds of divorces. Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that every state that adopted no-fault divorce, beginning with California in 1970, experienced an 8 to 13 percent decline in wives’ suicide rates and a 30 percent decline in domestic violence in the next five years.
On average, children of divorce exhibit more behavioral problems and do more poorly in school than children of intact marriages. But in many cases, the problems blamed on divorce can be seen in children many years before their parents split up and are actually a result of the dysfunctional family relations that eventually led to divorce.