Women are more likely than men to initiate divorces, but not to end non-marital relationships, according to Michael Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University.
Rosenfeld's analysis relies on survey data from the 2009-2015 waves of the nationally representative How Couples Meet and Stay Together survey. He considers 2,262 adults, ages 19 to 94, who had opposite sex partners in 2009. By 2015, 371 of these people had broken up or gotten divorced.
As part of his analysis, Rosenfeld found that women initiated 69 percent of all divorces, compared to 31 percent for men. In contrast, there was not a statistically significant difference between the percentage of breakups initiated by unmarried women and men, regardless of whether they had been cohabitating with their partners.
Social scientists have previously believed that women initiate most divorces because they are more sensitive to relationship difficulties. Rosenfeld argues that were this true, women would initiate the breakup of both marriages and non-marital relationships at equal rates.
"Women seem to have a predominant role in initiating divorces in the U.S. as far back as there is data from a variety of sources, back to the 1940s," Rosenfeld said. "I assumed, and I think other scholars assumed, that women's role in breakups was an essential attribute of heterosexual relationships, but it turns out that women's role in initiating breakups is unique to heterosexual marriage."
Perhaps women were more likely to initiate divorces because, as Rosenfeld found, married women reported lower levels of relationship quality than married men. In contrast, women and men in non-marital relationships reported equal levels of relationship quality.
Rosenfeld said his results support the feminist assertion that some women experience heterosexual marriage as oppressive or uncomfortable.
Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.