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Marriage benefits men more than it does women. Married men are happier and healthier than their unmarried counterparts, their careers also benefit, and married men are more likely than unmarried men to be in the top 1% of earners.
On the other hand, women’s health doesn’t improve significally with marriage. In fact, women’s health is much more tied to the quality of the marriage. While even bad marriages seem to benefit men, women’s health suffers a bigger impact than men’s if the marriage is bad.
To top it all off, nearly 70% of all divorces in the US are initiated by women.
So what’s going on here?
While I’d be the first to remind anyone that correlation doesn’t imply causation, as someone who’s deeply interested in studying human relationships, and as a woman who’s been married and asked for a divorce, I can’t help but speculate.
Why is it that popular culture depicts women as marriage-minded, but at the same time, women seem to be the ones who are quitting marriage in droves? What is it about marriage that disappoints women so deeply?
There’s less tolerance for abuse
Many years ago, my grandmother attended a 70-year wedding anniversary party. The couple were in their 90’s. They smiled as they cut the cake together, and took pictures with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“He used to beat her up every single day,” my grandma said. “But there they were, celebrating 70 years as husband and wife.”
Couples like the one my grandmother witnessed are becoming increasingly rarer, thankfully. Women used to endure a lot of abuse in the past (physical and emotional) because divorce was either not an option legally speaking, or it was too taboo to even contemplate. Marriage was final, and if being abused was what being married was like, than that’s what being married was like, end of story.
Now, women are more educated to identify even the more subtle forms of emotional and psychological abuse, and more empowered to get out of those kinds of bad marriages sooner rather than later.
Now, women have a much shorter tolerance for bad behavior their grandmothers were expected to overlook in the past.
“Dori Schwartz, a divorce mediator and coach says, ‘Today’s modern woman is more unlikely to put up with infidelity. Once the honeymoon period is over, some men drastically change their behavior from romantic to controlling and emotionally abusive. Unfortunately, this happens in many marriages, and women don’t want to take it anymore.’”
The good news is, women don’t have to take it anymore.
Women’s high expectations for marriage
It’s not unfair to ask, abusive relationships aside, do women have too high expectations of marriage? Some people seem to think so.
In her 2010 book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, Lori Gottlieb interviews several married women, as well as psychologists, matchmakers, and relationship experts in an attempt to understand if there’s really no good men out there anymore, or if women are just too picky.
In defense of the the picky women argument, one advice stands out: single women expect too much of marriage. A few twice-married women interviewed for the book sound the alarm: while they don’t necessarily regret asking for a divorce from their first husbands, getting married for a second time required a dose of humility, and made them recognize that, in retrospect, their first husbands weren’t really that bad. They admit they probably could have stayed married had they realized that at the time. The men these women married next aren’t perfect either. According to their own testimonial, they had to learn to tolerate imperfection in order to stay married the second time around.
In decades past, a good marriage was one in which both spouses consistently respected each other, had a somewhat active sex life, hit milestones together (buy a house, have children, retire), and didn’t cause each other serious physical harm. Now, a good marriage is expected to provide emotional support, intellectual stimulation, companionship, best-friend level camaraderie, an endless source of laugher and joy, and an exciting — never boring — sex life.
And yes, most of those expectations do come from women, the same women who think a man who truly loves them will read their minds, and know exactly what to do and what to say in every situation as if life were no more than a script.
It’s not a surprise that many women get married only to discover their spouse can’t be their best friend, lover, therapist, cheerleader, and household co-manager all at once. Even the best of men are only human, and sadly, some women discover this truth when it is already too late.
Emotional labor and gender roles
While Lori Gottlieb’s book is a cautionary tale against unreasonable female expectations, sometimes it is women’s very realistic expectations not being met that shatters all hope for a good marriage.
Yes, some of women’s expectations are impossible to meet, but at the same time, too many men consistently fail to step up to the mark at even the most basic level.
Despite the majority of households in the US relying on two incomes, men and women still tackle household chores disproportionally.
Here’s a statistic that will shock absolutely no one: “On average, men worked longer hours outside the home, yet even in families where women worked equivalent or longer hours and earned higher salaries they still took on more household responsibilities.”
According with a 2019 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, men with full-time employment work on average 8.3 hours, compared with 7.7 hours for women. It’s fair to ask, do women take on more of the housework because they work (on average) fewer hours, or do they work fewer hours because they know if they don’t get home in time to cook dinner and do the laundry nobody else will?
Do women work fewer hours because it’s easier to do so than to ask for the help of a husband who will mostly ignore her and call her a nag?
Here’s a truly shocking statistic: “In a 2019 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, which included over 6,000 American heterosexual couples over 15 years, many men experienced ‘psychological distress’ if their wives made more than 40% of the household income in a marriage.” Yes, it’s 2020, and men still feel “psychological distress” over their wives taking home a decent paycheck.
If marriage represents an environment where support for a woman to pursue her career goals is low, where she has to take on a disproportionate amount of housework and childcare despite having a partner (on paper) to share those responsibilities with, and where a resistant husband makes addressing those issues in a productive way a waking nightmare, it’s not really a surprise that women are calling it quits.
Relationships are more flexible now, and divorce is more accepted
Sex no longer needs to be sanctioned by marriage. There’s a myriad of socially acceptable relationship arrangements, from friends with benefits to polyamory and beyond. Single women over 30 are no longer called “spinsters” (to their face, anyways), and being a divorced woman isn’t as taboo as it once was. All things considered, incentive for women to remain in a bad marriage is simply too low to matter.
Once a woman in an unhappy marriage realizes she might just as well go do life by herself, nothing will convince her to stay.
Marriage just seems less important these days
This isn’t a case against marriage, but it’s hard to go through all of the arguments and the life experience (as I’ve said, I’m divorced myself) and not come out feeling like marriage simply isn’t as important as it once was.
I still believe in marriage, though. My parents have been happily married for over 30 years, and I would like to one day find the same for myself, although these days it has become somewhat less of a priority. Marriage now feels like something that would be nice to have, but that I’m no rush to obtain, and could absolutely do without.
I suppose this is how most of the women out there initiating 70% of divorces feel as well, like they could simply do without.
In the end, men benefit more from marriage, but are more resistant to enter it, in part due to societal expectations. Men still see getting married as giving up their freedom in exchange of questionable (although scientifically proven) gains. Women, on the other hand, despite being socialized to want marriage from a young age, are the first to quit when they realize marriage is a lot more stifling and lonely than they ever thought it would be.
Having been there myself, I don’t blame them.