How Work—Inside and Outside the Home—Affects a Marriage
A new study shows how employment status and housework contributions have affected the divorce rate over time.
Good news for working women: A new study shows that money issues, including a wife’s ability to support herself, are not linked to higher divorce rates. What does predict whether a marriage will last, however, is how couples divide work responsibilities—both paid and unpaid.
To see how marriage and divorce trends have changed over time, Harvard sociology professor Alexandra Killewald, PhD, compared data from more than 6,300 opposite sex couples interviewed between 1968 and 2013. What she found was that, across the board, financial strain itself did not affect divorce rates. But what did make a difference (and what changed over time) was who made the money and who stayed home.
For couples married before 1975, women doing a higher percentage of the housework was associated with lower rates of divorce. Marriages after 1975, however, didn’t follow the same pattern. For these couples, neither wives’ full-time employment nor sharing the housework more evenly was associated with the risk of divorce.
“In general, men seem to be contributing a little more [to household labor] than they used to,” says Killewald, “and these contributions may now be expected and appreciated by wives.” (She does note, however, that wives in the more recently married group still did 72 percent of the housework on average. That’s down from 81 percent, pre-1975.)
The study serves an important role in dispelling the theory that women having jobs outside the home is somehow bad for marriage. “The fact that divorce rates rose during the second half of the 20th century at the same time when women were moving into the labor force has prompted some speculation that marital stability has declined, because women no longer ‘need’ to be married for financial security,” Killewald says. “My results do not suggest any tradeoff of that kind.”
One thing that did affect the post-1975 group’s risk of marriage dissolution? Husbands’ employment status. Men who weren’t working full-time were more likely to get divorced that those who had steady jobs. So while women no longer have to embrace traditional homemaker roles, Killewald says, marriages still seem to suffer when the husband doesn’t fulfill his “stereotypical breadwinner” duties.
Killewald is quick to point out that not all house husbands are destined for a breakup. Her research did not separate results for men who are involuntarily unemployed versus those who choose to stay home to take responsibility for housework and child care, and she says more research is needed on couples with these nontraditional setups.
“It’s possible that involuntary unemployment is particularly disruptive for couples,” she says, “and that couples who deliberately choose a division of labor in which the husband takes responsibility at home instead of full-time employment do not experience heightened risk of divorce.”
The study results suggest that marriages are more stable when partners fulfill the roles that are expected of them as husband or as wife, Killewald says. But they also show that those expectations are not what they used to be.
Because of this, it may be helpful for couples to recognize that examples of “good marriages” they have from earlier generations—such as their parents—may not provide a helpful blueprint as they navigate their own partnership in a different era, she adds.
They may also want to think carefully about what roles and responsibilities are important to them, and how they will work together to fulfill them.
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“Individuals may vary in how they understand the expectations of marriage,” Killewald says. “In other words, there’s no objective definition of what employment status or contributions to housework constitute a ‘good wife’ or ‘good husband.’”