The decision to end a marriage is often difficult, and couples may spend months, or even years, soul-searching before calling it quits. But when it comes to initiating a split, there’s a clear pattern in who makes the final call. In Western heterosexual relationships, women catalyse an enormous proportion of divorces.
In the US specifically, where no-fault divorce is legal in all 50 sates, some estimates put the figure at 70%; this rises to a staggering 90% when women are college educated. In the UK, ONS statistics showed women petitioned for 62% of divorces in England and Wales in 2019.
Now, in some Western countries, divorce is becoming easier; the UK, for instance, recently legalised no-fault divorces, which means couples now have a quicker and more straightforward route to break up. This change in rules could open the door for even more women – who might have been hesitant before – to file for divorce.
Why, though, are women disproportionately choosing to divorce in the first place? For some, the answer lies in how partners do – or don’t – meet their emotional needs in marriage. Yet for others, things are more complicated – and there may be more nuance to these statistics than it seems.
The importance of independence
In most societies, divorce has been a relatively recent phenomenon.
In the UK, divorce was extremely uncommon before 1914, with just one divorce in every 450 marriages in the first decade of the 20th Century. Now, more than 100,000 couples in the UK get divorced every year, and in the US, around half of marriages end in divorce.
As Heidi Kar, a psychologist and expert on domestic violence at the US-based Education Development Center, explains, it’s no coincidence that the rise of divorce has coincided with women’s liberation.
“Because economic independence is an imperative before a woman can attempt to leave a marriage, either alone or with children to support, it’s extremely difficult for women to leave a marriage unless they have some way to make money on their own,” she says. “Also, because gender roles become more complicated as women start to gain financial independence, more marital conflict naturally arises.”
In other words, women’s entry into the workforce enabled them to leave unhappy marriages for the first time – they were no longer financially bound to remain in abusive partnerships or relationships where their needs were not being met, and women thus began to initiate divorces at greater scale.