Key points

  • Divorce is widespread in the U.S. For instance, roughly 1 million American women divorced in 2019.
  • Though divorce is more costly for women than men, women are more likely to ask for a divorce. Many report greater satisfaction after divorce.
  • Female-initiated divorce may be related to mismatches between men and women in the areas of interdependence, caregiving, and mate preference.

Divorce is common. For instance, in 2019, one million American women divorced.

Though divorce is financially costly, particularly for women, the percentage of divorces initiated by women is higher than men-initiated divorces. Furthermore, a surprisingly large number of women report post-divorce life satisfaction. For an explanation of this paradox and reasons why women divorce, we turn to a recent paper by Parker and collaborators, published in the February 2022 issue of Current Opinion in Psychology.

The authors argue, using the evolutionary theory, that various mismatches between the sexes increase the likelihood of divorce. These mismatches are detailed below. (Note, most of what follows applies to divorces initiated by women in heterosexual relationships in Western countries.)

Good genes, deep pockets, and other mismatches in mate preference

When it comes to mate selection, women value characteristics such as masculinity, facial symmetry, attractiveness, and social dominance. Quite a few of these characteristics signal good genes. For example, they correlate with health and physical strength, which are attributes that increase survival and reproductive success.

Why might a desire for genetically superior men result in mate preference mismatch? Because men with good genes are usually more interested in short-term relationships and do not make the best long-term partners (e.g., are less resourceful). So, women, especially those able to financially support themselves, may not feel motivated to stay in a relationship with such men.

Another mismatch concerns financial resources: Not only do women desire physically healthy and attractive romantic partners, but they also often desire resourceful mates (i.e. rich and successful men).

Mating preferences concerning money and resources might have an evolutionary explanation—e.g., women’s need to rely on men capable of providing for them during pregnancy and breastfeeding, which are periods of high energy expenditure and low mobility.

Though these mating preferences have not changed, society has changed drastically. Fewer women need to depend on men; indeed, an increasing number of women outearn their husbands.

This presents a problem, however, for women desiring a partner who is wealthy and is professionally more successful than they are. It may also result in relationship dissatisfaction for married women who, over time, begin to earn more than their husbands and achieve a higher status.

Caregiving and interdependence mismatch

Contemporary romantic relationships are characterized by lower levels of interdependence than they used to be. Again, this is partly related to women earning more than they once did. Nowadays, women are less willing to sacrifice their own happiness and well-being just to make their romantic partner happy. Indeed, an increasing number of women have the power to threaten or actually walk away if their romantic partner does not change his behavior.

But with less interdependence, there is less commitment, investment in the romantic relationship, and willingness to persist when new problems emerge.

Another mismatch, also related to decreases in interdependence, is a caregiving mismatch. Women, more than men, have a strong desire to provide care for their spouses and children. This desire or willingness to take on housework and childcare even applies to women who work outside the home or earn more than their romantic partners.

Having to do household chores and take care of children, on top of a job outside the home, significantly adds to women’s workload. It increases stress and reduces their well-being, relationship satisfaction, and sexual desire for their romantic partner.

What about stay-at-home fathers? For one, men who request family leave are often judged by their coworkers as weaker and less assertive, competent, and ambitious. In addition, stay-at-home fathers do more male-typed work, like home repair, as opposed to cooking, cleaning, or taking care of children. So they are not very helpful.

The result is that both partners are under stress these days: women often from having to do “everything” (and not enjoying the benefits of a partnership) and men from social pressures to engage in more masculine work. These stressors can increase the likelihood of separation, including divorces initiated by women.


Potential solutions to mismatches (that increase the risk of divorce initiated by women)

  1. Challenge gendered norms. One approach is to challenge gendered norms, especially the view of men as breadwinners and women as caregivers; or the perception that certain jobs or chores are masculine or feminine. The goal is to help men and women become more comfortable with activities that are not gender typical. Otherwise, neither husbands nor wives will be happy functioning in gender-atypical roles and may thus choose divorce instead.
  2. Obtain assistance with childcare. If the above proves too difficult, another solution is assistance with childcare, especially in marriages where women are the main breadwinners. The assistance could come in many shapes and forms—paid for or provided by an employer, the government, the child’s grandparents, etc.
  3. Become specialists. One way to foster interdependence between couples is to emphasize not merely sharing household duties but specializing in specific household chores. Like organizations running more smoothly when each employee is an expert in what they do (and rely on the help of other employees/experts in areas unfamiliar to them), specialization may allow a marriage to run more smoothly too.
  4. Obtain meta-knowledge. Just as greater awareness of the evolutionary past helps dieters see things more clearly regarding our evolved preferences for sweet, salty, and fatty foods, so might romantic partners gain a new perspective on relationship satisfaction by looking at their desires from a more detached perspective. This may be particularly helpful for individuals who take relationship problems (i.e. preference mismatches) too personally, as though reflecting their personal shortcomings.

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