Divorce: A Harvard Study Says This Can Crush Your Marriage

A divorce and marriage counseling session in "Old School"

A marriage counseling session in Old School tries to maintain a healthy relationship. | Dreamworks

Maintaining a long, healthy relationship is one of the biggest challenges people face in life. There are so many factors that affect the status of a relationship and so many things that are simply out of a couple’s control. So divorce has become rather common. Although divorce rates have been slowing down over the past several years, people are still doing what they can to avoid it — be it marrying the right person, waiting until the right age, or deferring until financial security is solidified.

All of those things might help you avoid a divorce, but we now have even more insight into what can make an otherwise strong union fracture. And it has more to do with the economy than with Tinder profiles, Facebook flirting, or too much time at the bar or in front of the Xbox.

According to a study published in American Sociological Review, the biggest factor leading to divorce is the husband’s job status. Harvard researcher Alexandra Killewald crunched the numbers and found men who didn’t have jobs, or who had been out of work for a long time, had a statistically higher chance of getting divorced in any given year, compared to those with stable careers.

Many couples fight about money, and that is often a leading factor in divorce proceedings. But this study adds another layer of complexity to those financial issues. Per Killewald’s study, men without jobs increase their odds of divorce by roughly 30%. Read on to find out how the research justifies that number.

Divorce and employment status

A fired man leaves his job

If a husband loses his job, it seems to put more strain on a marriage. | iStock.com

The research looks at data dating back 46 years to the 1970s. It found that for men who were not employed full time, there was a 3.3% chance they would get divorced in any given year. Compare that to men who did have a full-time job during the same time period, and the chances dropped to 2.5%. That’s what was found from looking at more than 6,300 couples.

“For marriages formed after 1975, husbands’ lack of full-time employment is associated with higher risk of divorce, but neither wives’ full-time employment nor wives’ share of household labor is associated with divorce risk,” the study says. “Expectations of wives’ homemaking may have eroded, but the husband breadwinner norm persists.”

Those are a couple of other interesting details the study unearthed. The full-time job status of the wife and division of household labor didn’t have a significant impact on divorce risk. Instead, the real difference had to do with the husband’s job status.

“It is possible that husbands’ less than full-time employment is associated with marital disruption more strongly than wives’, not because of gendered interpretations of lack of full-time employment, but because husbands’ part-time employment or nonemployment is more likely to be involuntary,” the study says. “Involuntary nonemployment may negatively affect marriages more strongly than voluntary nonemployment.”

In other words, it’s not just being out of work. It’s being fired or laid off and not being able to find a job. So what can you do?

Dodging divorce

Wedding rings

Many factors influence the health of a marriage. | iStock.com

There are limitations to the study, as Killewald points out. It didn’t include same-sex couples (marriage data is scarce), for example. Also, it didn’t include men who chose to become stay-at-home dads, with their wives as the household breadwinners. There is also evidence that division of labor in the household can play a bigger part in divorce than this study claims. But what you really need to know is there was a clear correlation with employment status and divorce rates.

What does this mean for your relationship? It might not mean anything. Each marriage is different. But we’ve known for a long time many marriages fail due to financial problems, and the employment status of the husband clearly plays into that.

Perhaps most importantly, there are numerous other factors that can lead to divorce that aren’t necessarily taken into account by this study. Cultural differences, religion, and children can all wreck a marriage. But, according to the study, if you want to stay out of divorce court, you should first try to stay out of the unemployment office.

Finances and relationships

A couple ready to battle it out over their joint account

A couple are ready to battle it out over their joint account. | iStock.com

A 2011 study from researchers John Dakin of Texas Tech and Jeffrey Dew of Utah State University demonstrated issues related to finances can ultimately be the death rattle for a good percentage of marriages. According to that study, couples who fight about money once per week or more are up to 30% more likely to divorce than couples who argue once per month.

And obviously, money and financial troubles are linked to employment status. It’s hard to be financially secure when you’re out of work, after all. So, this study reinforces the Killewald research, showing financial strife and unemployment cause fissures in relationships. Interestingly enough, Dakin and Dew’s study seems to indicate men’s need for financial control might play a role, too.

“Husbands’ financial disagreements are either stronger than wives’ disagreements or are significant when wives’ are not. These findings tentatively suggest that men may expect more control regarding money,” the study said. “If husbands perceive increasing disagreements about finances, they may use negative conflict tactics more frequently to enforce their desired financial decisions.”

But what if you’re still in the dating pool? Can finances and your employment situation kill your chances for a strong relationship?

What if you’re unmarried?

Couple dating and flirting

Finances can kill a date. | iStock.com/AntonioGuillem

What if you aren’t married? Can your finances sabotage a relationship before it’s even had a chance to blossom? The answer, unfortunately, is yes.

There is research bubbling up that links poor financial situations with stunted relationships. A lot of it has to do with debt loads and credit scores corresponding with perceived attractiveness. In other words, if you have a lot of debt (credit card or otherwise), someone might find you less attractive after learning about it.

So, no. Financial strife is not sexy.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean finances will turn off a potential mate. It’s subjective, and everyone is different. And finances don’t typically enter the picture until you’ve been in a relationship for a while, too. You wouldn’t drop the fact that you’re carrying around six figures’ worth of student loan debt on a first date.

Losing your job or experiencing financial troubles can kill your marriage. The research suggests that, but it’s not a guarantee. Not all marriages are equal. Some will fall apart in situations that cause others to become stronger. The key is to be aware there is a relationship between employment, financial health, and a strong marriage.

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