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Do women choose and men decide?

Last month I wrote an article entitled ‘Men who marry are deciders not sliders’, where I showed that almost all of the fall in UK divorce rates since the 1990s is due to fewer wives filing for divorce during the early years of marriage. I proposed that this was because today’s newlywed husbands are more committed. With less social pressure to marry, today’s bridegrooms are deciders and not sliders.

The article prompted a stream of alternative suggestions. So have these (mostly) sensible and intelligent suggestions from sensible and intelligent people caused me to change my mind?

Before making any attempt to interpret the stats, let’s remind ourselves of what the stats actually say.

The way I calculate divorce rates is by taking the number of marriages ending after one year or two years, etc, and mapping those onto the total number of weddings in the relevant year. This is the same method used by the Office for National Statistics, but with one small difference: I adjust the number of weddings to include an estimate of overseas weddings which can boost the overall wedding figure by 5-10 per cent in any given year.

This lets me see how UK divorce rates change for every year of marriage going back to 1963. Those 1963 couples have now been around for 55 years whereas couples who married in the year 2003, for example, have only been around for 15 years. But this means I can compare how older and newer couples fare over time and track the trends in divorce rates really clearly.

One of the additional things I can do is look at divorce rates depending on whether the divorce is granted to the husband or wife. Regardless of who is to blame, only one person fills in the form. This is important to remember. The person granted the divorce is the one who presumably wants it most, not the one who may be most responsible for what went wrong, in so far as one can pin the blame for divorce on one person anyway.

So this is not about blaming anybody, men or women!

Here are my two main findings about divorce rates in England & Wales (and therefore UK):

  • First, almost all of the fall in divorce rates since the late 1980s is attributable to fewer divorces granted to wives during their first decade of married life. Whereas 16-17 per cent of weddings that took place in the late 1980s ended because the wives were granted divorces before their tenth anniversary, that figure fell to 11 per cent for weddings that took place in 2007 (the latest year for which we have a full decade of divorce data). Contrast this with the extraordinarily consistent trend in divorce rates attributable to husbands being granted the divorce, which has fluctuated narrowly between 6.1 and 6.9 per cent through the same period.
  • Second, after couples have passed through the first ten years of married life, divorce rates become highly predictable, declining gradually with every year survived! So regardless of when couples got married and regardless of who fills in the form, divorce rates during the second or third or fourth decades have followed an almost identical track.

I think these are pretty amazing findings.

Think of all the social and economic changes since the 1960s. Yet once couples pass their tenth anniversary, divorce rates have barely changed whether couples got married in 1963, 1973, 1983 or 1993. After surviving the early years, the individual bond that a husband and wife make with one another seems impervious to outside forces.

What we have to explain, therefore, is why divorce rates have changed only among wives during the early years of marriage and not among husbands.

  • Is it simply because there have been fewer marriages?

On its own, I’m afraid this explanation doesn’t work at all. We’re talking about divorce rates, not numbers. All things being equal, if fewer couples were getting married divorce rates shouldn’t change, whether granted to wife or husband.

  • Is there a change in factors that inhibit women from divorcing?

In her response to my article, Belinda Brown points out that women tend to be economically worse off than men after a divorce. Overall, that should make women more hesitant about divorce than men, whereas in reality they have always made up the majority of divorces. In order to explain why women might have become even more hesitant, you have to believe that women’s prospects of being worse off have increased since the 1990s, trapping ever more women in dud marriages. This seems implausible. If anything, the barriers to divorce have come down as social stigma has retreated. If women are now less inhibited by the financial and social consequences of divorce, I would expect to see more divorces initiated by women, not fewer as has actually happened.

  • Is it the decline of marriage among middle and lower income groups?

Belinda quite rightly also highlights our own research showing that marriage has increasingly become the preserve of the rich. But why should this have caused fewer women to file for divorce, yet not had a similar effect on men? Among marriages in their first ten years, divorce rates attributable to husbands haven’t changed one iota. Among marriages over ten years, divorce rates attributable to either spouse have also barely changed. If wives are coping better with the early years because they are financially better off, I don’t see why the same doesn’t also apply to husbands. Wealth and income affect the comfort of both parties. So I would expect divorce rates attributable to husbands and wives to go up or down in tandem. They haven’t.

  • Women choosing better husbands?

This is Scott Stanley’s point. Historically, more women than men have filed for divorce because more men have behaved badly in some way. So as marriage rates fall, women are choosing fewer of those badly behaved men in the first place. That would certainly work if it were true. But are women choosing better behaved men or is it the case, as I argue, that today’s married men are better behaved on average because they aren’t pressured into marriage? They actually want it!

So do women choose and men decide? Now there’s a catchphrase!

Actually I suspect that women’s real choice tends to happen earlier on, whether to form the relationship in the first place. This is precisely how I have advised my own daughters about potential boyfriends. To choose well, you have two questions to answer. Is he marriageable – i.e. kind, decent, honest, reliable, trustworthy? And will he fight for you – i.e. will he put himself out for you, since willingness to sacrifice is a strong indicator of men’s commitment?

But when it comes to tying the knot, is it really women who choose? I imagine – although I haven’t seen any research on this – that it is invariably the man who makes the decision to propose. This is where I think the selection effect is. With less and less social pressure to marry, fewer and fewer men will be the reluctant husbands who never really bought in to the idea of marriage.

The proportion of men pushing for a divorce early on hasn’t changed in decades. So doesn’t that suggest men are still marrying the same type of women?

Yet the proportion of women pushing for a divorce early on has reduced sharply. If we agree that women haven’t become more tolerant or more trapped, then doesn’t that suggest today’s bridegrooms are doing something better?

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