Why are fewer women (but not men) divorcing?

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Until April 2022, when the new rules for ‘no-fault’ divorce came in, couples had to file for divorce in either the wife’s or husband’s name alone. There have been examples where both parties filed together but these were rare.

Given that one party must sign the form, a reasonable assumption might be that the process is random. If that’s the case, half of all divorces should be granted to wives and half to husbands.

But that’s not what has happened. Our analysis of divorce rates for couples marrying in any year since 1975 shows a very distinctive pattern.

The big trend in divorce rates has been a steady long-term rise among couples marrying throughout the 1970s and 1980s followed by a steady long-term fall among couples marrying throughout the 2000s and 2010s.

The vast majority (over 80 percent) of this long-term rise and fall is accounted for by divorces granted to wives in their first decade of married life. After ten years of marriage, divorce rates become highly predictable and have barely changed in decades. Unlike for women, divorces granted to men over any duration of marriage have also barely changed. Why?

Any account of changes in divorce rates must explain this extraordinary gender effect. It can’t be anything to do with changes in family income or age at which couples marry. Each should cause both husbands and wives to want to divorce equally, either both more or both less.

One obvious gender-based change since the 1960s has been in greater women’s equality of opportunity. But this doesn’t explain it either. Classic economic theory suggests the gain to a woman from being married reduces if she has her own job or increases her income. So rising women’s employment and equality should lead to more women divorcing, not fewer.

Our explanation is that as social pressure to marry reduces, women’s divorce rates have fallen because the men they marry are more committed. Several studies show that men, more than women, who ‘decide’ rather than ‘slide’ are more committed in their subsequent marriage. As fewer men marry now because they ‘have to’, more men marry because they ‘want to’.

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Here you can download the Research Briefing Paper as a PDF and the Press Release where it is available.

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