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Unemployment-Divorce Study: Behind The Ohio State University Paper Linking Male Joblessness With Marital Strife

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LIANA SAYER INTERVIEW

The clause in your marriage vows promising “for richer or poorer” may not be as fail-safe as you'd hope.

On the heels of a recent survey which found that 75 percent of women would not marry a jobless man, comes another study reporting that unemployment can have a profound effect on whether a married couple stays together--but only the man's unemployment, that is.

Researchers at Ohio State University followed over 3,600 couples from 1986 to 2003 using data from the National Survey of Families and Households that assessed the relationship between marriage and employment using a variety of questions about how people felt about their marriages, what was important to them in marriage, their employment histories, and their earnings.

The results were surprising, revealing as much about the social pressures on American marriage as the specific reasons couples split. While a woman’s employment status has no impact on whether she opts out of her marriage, the outlook for unemployed men is less optimistic. An unemployed man not only faces a greater likelihood of his wife initiating divorce, but he is also more likely to leave his own marriage despite potential financial instability. In essence, Americans still believe it to be a man’s duty to bring home the bacon, and the inability to fulfill that expectation breaks up marriages.

To get a better understanding of these results, we spoke with Liana Sayer, a professor of Sociology at Ohio State University and the study's lead researcher.

HP: What are the differences in “divorce determinants” for men and women?

LS: The big differences that we found appear to be employment differences. [A woman’s] employment only affects her likelihood of initiating divorce if she is unhappy with the marriage. [A man’s] non-employment predicts both his initiating divorce and her initiating divorce. In some marriages in which the man is unemployed, he is the initiator while in others she initiates it. There’s something still about men’s non-employment that flies in the face of what couples think a marriage should be.

HP: To what extent do you think those findings stem from our understanding of the traditional gender roles that we anticipate fulfilling in marriage?

LS: We used what we termed the “institutionalist theory of marriage,” which holds that people are going to get married because they have some idea of what each partner should be doing in a marriage. For marriage today, [that role] for men is still very much tied to being the breadwinner. For women, it appears to be tied to shared caregiving and breadwinning roles. There’s more fluidity around the acceptability of women’s roles than there is around men’s roles.

HP: Speaking of fluidity, tn the past fifty years, women have moved from the home to the workplace, but the same is not true of men, who are much less likely to assume the role of homemaker. In your study, did you see any indication that this “asymmetric” change in traditional gender roles in marriage may balance out in coming years?

LS: There are factors that might work against the further movement of men [to be equal to women in their gender roles] such as the continued devaluation of “care work” by American society at large. Housework is not perceived as being a particularly valuable activity. To some extent, men are stigmatized if they engage in housework and child care activities, whether by their parents, employers, or society at large. There’s some evidence showing that men suffer negative outcomes if they choose to prioritize their family, or invest as much time [in their family as they do] in work. There are few indications that the stigma against that “home-maker” role will change in the U.S. any time soon.

HP: What does your research tell us about the changing dynamics of marriage and divorce?

LS: It presents a notion of how marriages are changing and gives some insight into what people now value in terms of marital partners. It points to some potential problems in terms of the future of the family and relationships if we continue to assess men by what men bring financially to the relationship.

HP: Did you look into the likelihood of divorce when both spouses are earners? What if the woman is earning more than her husband?

LS: We looked at a relative measure of earnings that compares her earnings to his earnings and what we found was very similar to the employment findings in terms of it appearing to interact with marital quality. So the story seems fairly consistent: If she is unhappy and she has financial resources, she’s more likely to initiate leaving.

HP: Very few studies about divorce take gender differences into account. Why?

LS: I think that for the most part it’s been a problem of the data. We don’t typically have data on both members of the couple. Usually only one respondent answers questions, which only gives you one viewpoint. The National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) is one of the only studies in the U.S. to ask about who initiated the divorce, though we have good data on who files for divorce.

HP: Were there any limitations in your study?

LS: We did not have earnings or other sources of wealth measured as precisely as we did employment. With men’s non-employment, is it a divorce risk factor because of financial strain from not having that income or if we had low-earning men would we still have found similar results? Is it employment itself or is it employment earnings that are the risk factor? Those are questions we wanted to examine when we set out, but the data really didn’t support it that well.

HP: Has prior research reinforced your findings? Is this a unique study in its results?

LS: There has been prior research looking at the separate determinants that predict men versus women entering marriages--all of which is consistent with our findings. Historically it’s been the case that a man having a college degree or a stable job is very important for couples--that breadwinning ability. For women it used to be that [their] employment deterred marriage, but that no longer is the case. So, for men and women alike, the possibility of a good job and good earnings over their life course is increasingly important.

HP: What can married couples take from this?

LS: One thing we know from research on what makes marriages happy is people point to appreciation and involvement. If there’s an inequitable gender division of labor, so the woman is breadwinning and doing housework and childcare and the husband isn’t that involved [in anything], he might want to become more involved with housework and childcare. But I think other things couples can do are somewhat limited because there are outside factors that might keep men from being as involved in the home as they might like.

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