I never thought much about gender. I never felt limited by my sex, nor entitled because of it. The "F" printed on my driver's license never had any conscious impact on my decisions in life, whether it was to go to college or not have children. My marriage was defined by relative strengths and weaknesses, a dance of interests and abilities, rather than by historical societal norms. I never thought much about gender. Until I got divorced, that is.
Once I was divorced, people assumed that I was enlisted in a war -- "us against them" -- pitting Mars against Venus. This was a war I wanted no part of, but because I was perceived to be involved, I decided that I needed to be informed.
I fall into the category of the 66 percent of divorces that are filed by women. A statistic I never knew and never wanted to know. I might have been the partner to initiate the divorce in the legal sense, but I was only responding to my husband's abandonment. I wondered how many divorces were actually desired by the woman, a far more telling statistic, but one that is often hidden behind the closed doors of a marriage.
The 1999 study, Towards Understanding the Reasons for Divorce (Wolcott and Hughes) sheds some light. According to their research (the most recent I was able to find), 64 percent of women felt like they initiated the split whereas only 23 percent of men took on that responsibility. These numbers are interesting; they show that regardless of what behaviors or thoughts led to the split, men more often feel like they are the ones being left.
When news of my divorce seeped out of my immediate circle, assumptions were made about the reasons for the split. Again, I was ignorant of the role of gender and caught off guard by the conjectures formulated by people who had never stood in my kitchen, much less my bedroom. According to Wolcott and Hughes, these top five reasons men and women leave marriages:
Affair (either self or partner) 19.7%
Physical/Mental Health 4.7%
Affair (either self or partner) 20.3%
Alcohol/Drugs (either self or partner) 11.3%
What strikes me are the similarities between the two sides; they are much more alike than they are different. And, despite the common perceptions, sexual incompatibility only accounted for <2% of the male responses and financial reasons for the split were indicated by <4% of the women. I guess men are interested in more than sex and women don't just care about money.
According to the research, men are more likely (25.8%) than women (19.2%) to feel that the divorce was not fair. Much of the perception of fairness has to do with the allocation of resources and subsequent financial status. The statistics regarding the financial implications of divorce for men and women are quite interesting. According to the Pew Charitable Trust 2012 Fact Sheet, almost half of women experience a substantial decline in income after a divorce, down from 63 percent in the 1970's. About half of men also suffer from an income decline, but this has increased from 30 percent in the last 40 years. These statistics show that the negative financial implications from divorce have become more equitable in recent years, and that financial hardship is faced almost equally by men and women, although their perceptions may differ due to the relative changes.
Equity has also begun to seep into the courts. According to a 2012 Reuters report, almost half of divorce attorneys have seen an increase in women paying child support and/or alimony. This is in line with women garnering greater earning power and more men taking on the task of child care. Our relationships are no longer delineated by gender and our court rulings should reflect that reality.
Divorce may feel like a battle between you and your ex, but there is no reason to turn it into a war between men and women. Divorce hurts us all and the statistics can only hint at the heartbreak buried beneath the surface. There are differences in the experience, but the similarities are much more profound. We all face the loss of a partner. We all struggle with trying to make sense of a new reality. We all have to work to understand our own part in the demise of the union. We all hurt and we all can heal. So instead of signing up for the war against the opposite gender, perhaps we can learn from our shared experiences and work on healing together instead of being angry alone.