You may have been hearing about rising rates of divorce among married, heterosexual baby boomers. While I am an advocate for any adult couple choosing not to stay together for any reason, the current rates of divorce in this cohort are striking. The Star Tribune reports that a quarter of all divorces occur in persons married more than 20 years and overall, rates of divorce are rising among straight boomer couples.
Although certain high profile divorces have recently brought this issue to our attention, many of us know couples that have been together for decades that have decided to throw in the towel. We are also aware of stereotypes that might impact current divorce trends: middle-aged men seeking younger wives and women who feel that they have put up with enough. In thinking about these statistics, however, it is helpful to look beyond stereotypes.
Maybe the rise in divorce rates among older heterosexual couples implies that feminism did some good for women in middle age and beyond. Women are more financially independent (though we still earn much less than men do) and societal norms pathologize women less who choose to get divorced and/or remain single.
As a younger middle-aged woman, however, I am less convinced that the reasons why women who choose to leave their husbands (as divorce in this generation is more often initiated by wives) are due to the success of feminism. Rather, I think the ways the feminist movement did not succeed is a more likely culprit regarding why divorce is common among boomers. Though first-wave feminism advocated equality, fairness is lacking in marriages. Women still provide the majority of child-care, household management, often while working full-time outside of the home. Additionally, women are often the managers of social calendars, and do more "work" in terms of worrying about issues impacting families.
Perhaps for some boomer women, years of having been in a constant position of inequality have taken its toll. Imagine twenty years of taking care of nearly everything, only to realize that it may be easier to just take care of one's self. I am not trying to paint women as victims; indeed, we have a great deal of influence and control in our lives. That said, I sometimes wonder about the how the feminist movement impacted women of the boomer generation. Do they feel as let down as I do?
It may be that some older women feel freed to leave marriages that are unsatisfying and this could be one advantage of the feminist movement. But since heterosexual marriages are still so unbalanced in terms of emotional and pragmatic work, what will this mean for younger couples? Will younger women hang in there for twenty years and then uproot their lives?
Today's younger generation needs a feminist movement that speaks to both men and women about the advantages of equality. Fairness and balance among the sexes has a number of rewards. Happy and cohesive marriages benefit men and women, in both physical and psychological ways.