A new study published in the American Sociological Review suggests that women’s brightening economic prospects in the last forty years may not be to blame for the uptick in divorces as previously assumed. Instead, it may have more to do with how the housework is divided and whether husbands still play a significant role as breadwinner.

Using data from a long-running nationally representative survey of multigenerational families, Harvard sociologist Alexandra Killewald examined over 6,300 straight sex couples across two different time periods: Those married before 1975, and those married after. Of those couples, 1,684 couples had divorced or permanently separated. In both groups, Killewald found that factors, such as a couple’s financial strain or whether the woman could support herself independently in the event of a separation, did not significantly influence the risk of future divorce. More important than money, it appeared, was how couples split their time between the workplace and home.

"My results suggest that, in general, financial factors do not determine whether couples stay together or separate," said Killewald in a statement released by the American Sociological Association. "Instead, couples' paid and unpaid work matters for the risk of divorce, even after adjusting for how work is related to financial resources."

Killewald used the year 1975 as a rough dividing line before and after the cultural movement for women’s social and economic liberation began in earnest. And she found that these divisions of labor affected couples’ marital bliss differently between the two time periods.

Before the 1970’s, women were traditionally expected to be exclusively homemakers while men continued to contribute to the household as strictly breadwinners. In couples where women didn’t perform the overwhelming majority of housework, Killewald found there was a noticeably higher risk of divorce. But the same wasn’t true for the newer generation of marriages.

"For couples married more recently, expectations for the division of housework between spouses appear to have changed, so that men are expected to contribute at least somewhat to household labor," she explained, noting that women today still generally do 70 percent of the chores. "In general, men seem to be contributing a little more than they used to, and these contributions may now be expected and appreciated by wives."

There was also some evidence that modern day households where the housework was split more evenly were less likely to split up. Despite these changes, there did appear to be some constants in divorce risk, particularly when it came to the career prospects of husbands.

"While contemporary wives need not embrace the traditional female homemaker role to stay married, contemporary husbands face higher risk of divorce when they do not fulfill the stereotypical breadwinner role, by being employed full-time," Killewald said.

In addition to not fulfilling expected gender roles, this might be because that these men aren’t working full-time jobs involuntarily, having been fired rather than choosing to become stay-at-home dads. That fact alone may add more martial stress to the equation.

There was also a greater risk of divorce among the older generation of couples in which women worked full-time jobs, but it largely faded away in the newer generation, which served as another sign of the changing cultural landscape. Whereas 34 percent of married women in the study reported working full-time before 1975, that figure changed to 48 percent for post-1975 marriages.

Killewald’s findings, though not definitive, indicate that the growing trend of divorces may be more related to how we view our respective social responsibilities as husband and wife rather than the size of the paycheck we bring home. They also rebuff the popular belief among more conservative circles that the increasing economic freedom of women has sent the institution of marriage into complete disarray.

"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 said. "For some, this implies that women's entry into the work force has come at the expense of stable marriages. My results do not suggest any tradeoff of that kind."

Of course, the question of why people ultimately divorce is complicated and rarely due to just one thing. Among the other risk factors Killewald found in her sample were living in the south, having at least one partner not identify with any religion, or living together before marriage. Thankfully for today’s live-in or atheistic couples, those last two risk factors appear to have largely disappeared in recent years. Other studies have found that everything from a wife’s health to a partner’s heavy drinking can drive up the chances of an eventual divorce.

Given her surprising findings, Killewald concluded her study highlights the importance that our shifting gender norms may play for men as well as women in our modern day families.

Source: Killewald, A. Money, Work, and Marital Stability: Assessing Change in the Gendered Determinants of Divorce. American Sociological Review. 2016.