Expectations for a spouse are much higher than they used to be.
For most of Western history, marriage had little equality. Wives bore the brunt of child care and housework, depended on their husbands for financial support and enjoyed little social autonomy while men openly had affairs.
Fast-forward to the age of rom-coms, Valentine’s Day and a $50 billion wedding industry. It’s all based on finding, marrying and keeping “The One.”
“Today Americans want not only a spouse who is reliable and reasonable, but also someone who is their best friend, and a great lover, and someone who pays the bills … but is also really fun,” said Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld.
According to research that Rosenfeld presented at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting last week, these heightened expectations can leave women feeling worse off in marriage than men. In a survey of 2,262 adults in heterosexual partnerships over the course of five years, Rosenfeld found that women initiate divorces 69 percent of the time.
On the whole, they also reported less satisfaction with their marriages than men.
Scientists have known for decades that wives are usually the ones asking for a divorce. But Rosenfeld’s study also surveyed people in non-marital romantic relationships, from casual flings to couples who had lived together for several years; in those relationships, women and men initiated breakups at equal rates. So there’s something about marriage that makes it harder on women.
“The expectation is that marriage has a whole bunch of benefits and positive characteristics for women that it didn’t have in the past, but the truth is much trickier than that,” Rosenfeld said.
Though he stressed that most women surveyed were happy with their marriages, many of those who weren’t cited controlling husbands and a loss of independence as causes of discontent.
He also speculated that, although most men today espouse egalitarian values, many probably still harbor subconscious expectations of a wife’s traditional role in the household. This could explain why, after all these years, women still shoulder twice as many domestic responsibilities as men. (In contrast, studies have shown that couples who equally divide their child-care duties have better sex lives.)
Rosenfeld’s survey checked in with the same individuals every year for five years. In cases in which someone was married the first year of the study and divorced in the last, his team was able to gather details in the breakup’s immediate aftermath.
One woman, who was 23 when the study began in 2009, initially reported a “good” (4 out of 5 points on the satisfaction scale) relationship with her husband-to-be: “He is very clever, fun, and sweet. I respect him and feel like we are equals on values, intellect and humor.”
She noted, however, “It is not ‘excellent’ because I wish that he was more romantic. He’s very practical.”
Four years later, the couple got divorced. In early 2015, she said, “I used to be a very happy optimistic person and it was like he was slowly starving my soul.”
She realized that the relationship had become emotionally abusive and promptly filed for a divorce.
Rosenfeld said respondents’ stories had echoes of “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan’s feminist treatise about unhappiness among middle-class housewives. Instead, many of today’s disgruntled wives have full-time jobs — and hence no practical need for husbands who don’t make them happy.
So while the institution of marriage hasn’t completely shed its inequitable roots, women can afford to be a lot choosier.