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Divorce in America: Who Wants Out and Why?

just-divorced
Since the 1970’s, the share of Americans who eventually leave their marriages has hovered between 40 and 50%.  Divorce, even when seemingly necessary, can be very disruptive to the lives of individuals and their children.  Using new data from the Relationships in America survey, which included nearly 4,000 ever-divorced adults ages 18-60, we assessed how couples think about—then actually do separate and divorce—as well as who wants out more and why. What did we learn?

Percentage thought about leaving

First, women are most prone to discontent in marriage.  20% of married women but only 13% of married men report having thought about leaving their spouse within the past year (compared to 41% of cohabiting women and 26% of cohabiting men). However, thoughts about separating—or conversations with one’s spouse or partner about exactly that—do not signify that a relationship is over. Far from it. While separated persons make up only 2% of the overall sample, 13% of married respondents report having talked about separating (within the past year) but have so far elected not to do so.

Who wants out of their marriage?

In consonance with previous work on the question, women remain far more likely to want out of their marriages than men: 55% said they wanted their marriages to end more than their spouses while only 29% of men reported the same. And the differences don’t seem to be due solely to differences in perception by gender: 42% of men reported that their spouse wanted the marriage to end more than they did and only 20% of women said the same.

Perceptions of divorce desireIndeed, across 25 data sets and over 125 years, wives are consistently more likely to file for divorce than husbands.  These results are remarkably resistant to the time period of the data, which is surprising since economic opportunities for women have expanded dramatically—giving women outside options—and divorce laws have been altered, typically in their favor.

What reasons do divorcees offer for divorce?

Divorce is complicated, of course, and often involves numerous causes. The Relationships in America survey presented respondents with 17 distinct reasons commonly cited for pursuing divorce (plus a catch-all “other reason” category).

Reasons for Divorce

Sixty-six (66) percent of those divorcees who wanted the divorce as much as or more than their spouse listed more than one reason for the divorce, while one in four offered 5 or more reasons.  The most-cited reasons for wanting a divorce were:

  • Infidelity by either party: 37% (28% spouse’s infidelity)
  • Spouse unresponsive to your needs: 32%
  • Grew tired of making a poor match work: 30%
  • Spouse’s immaturity: 30%
  • Emotional Abuse: 29%
  • Financial Priorities/Spending Patterns: 24%
  • Alcohol and Drug Abuse: 23%

Men and women differ notably in their reasons for wanting a divorce. Women are far more likely to cite emotional abuse (37 vs. 13%), physical abuse (21 vs. 8%), their spouse’s pornography usage (7 vs. 1%), and alcohol or drug problems (29 vs. 14%).  Men are slightly more likely than women to cite marrying too young (24 vs. 18%).  Overall, women cited more reasons than men (See Figure 1.)

Moreover, some popular claims about causes of divorce exhibited comparatively fewer responses than might have been anticipated, including “married too young” (20%), the desire to pursue a different life (16%), trouble with the in-laws (15%), pornography use (5%), and persistent religious or cultural differences (5%). And the 17 reasons offered captured most respondents: only nine percent also checked “some other reason.”

Physical violence is an alarmingly common reason listed by women seeking divorce—at 21 percent—a figure nearly three times higher than that reported by men. Yet when currently-married couples are asked about physical abuse, nearly identical shares of men and women (10% and 11%, respectively) say that they have experienced some form of physical abuse at least once in their current marriage. About one in every 200 currently-married men and women report numerous instances of physical violence, while 5 percent of women and 4 percent of men report that their current spouse has been physically violent with them more than once. 

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The Austin Institute is a team of scholars dedicated to social science research of the family, marriage, and contemporary relationships.
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