Money won’t make or break your marriage, but how you spend your time both in and out of the house might, suggests new research published Thursday in the journal American Sociological Review.
“Financial factors do not determine whether couples stay together or separate,” says study author Alexandra Killewald, a professor of sociology at Harvard University. “Instead, couples’ paid and unpaid work matters for the risk of divorce, even after adjusting for how work is related to financial resources.”
The study looked at more than 6,300 different-sex couples — some married before 1975 (these couples are more likely to have traditional marriages where the woman stays home and the man works) and after 1975 (these couples are less likely to have traditional marriages) — all ages 18 to 55.
So what does this mean? That having a full-time job (for men) and participating in housework (for women) can predict the likelihood of divorce — though these depend on when you were married.
First, housework matters, but only for decades-long-married couples. For couples married before 1975, the higher the percentage of housework a woman does, the less likely she’ll end up divorced. But for those married after 1975, that’s no longer true. Nowadays, “men are expected to contribute at least somewhat to household labor,” says Killewald (though she notes that women still do about 70% of the total housework). This change, she says, may be partially due to the feminist movement, which advanced notions about a woman’s role in the home.
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But in at least one way, a man’s role may not have changed: For couples married after 1975, it’s not how much money either the husband or wife makes, but whether or not the husband has a full-time job that matters: Couples where the husband works full-time are 25% less likely to get a divorce than those in which he isn’t employed full time. In short, “men who aren’t able to sustain full-time work face heightened risk of divorce,” Killewald says. (For women married before 1975, a husband’s full-time employment doesn’t have a statistically significant impact on the likelihood of divorce).
This finding is bolstered by a 2014 survey from Pew Research Center, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., which asked never-married women what factors they consider “very important” in a future spouse. The No. 1 answer: A person who holds down a steady job, with 78% of women looking for that. (That answer beat out “similar ideas about having and raising children” and “same moral and religious beliefs.”)
This finding shows that “marriage is a social institution that has gendered norms of behavior associated with it, including the expectation that husbands are employed full-time,” says Killewald. “While contemporary wives need not embrace the traditional female homemaker role to stay married, contemporary husbands face higher risk of divorce when they do not fulfill the stereotypical breadwinner role, by being employed full-time.”
There are limitations to this study: It looks only at different-sex couples and divides the marriage cohorts very broadly (those married before 1975 and after 1975). And as Killewald notes “the results are based on average associations — for some couples the husband not being employed full-time could be unproblematic.” Plus, there is research that contradicts some of the findings. For example, a Norwegian study published in 2012 found that couples who share housework were about 50% more likely to divorce.