According to a new large-scale survey of 18- to 60-year-old Americans, one in five married women and about one in eight married men thought about leaving their spouse in the past year. The survey, sponsored by the Austin Institute, found a similar gender gap among divorced survey respondents: 55 percent of divorced women said they wanted to end their marriage more than their ex-spouses did (while 20 percent said their ex felt more strongly, and 25 percent said both wanted the divorce equally). The views of divorced men largely backed them up—that is, divorced men were more likely to say that their ex-wives wanted the divorce more than to say the reverse.
Perhaps relatedly, a recent Pew survey found that divorced and widowed single women are less likely than their male counterparts to express the desire to marry again (15 versus 29 percent), and women whose first marriage ended are significantly less likely than men to ever marry someone new (52 percent versus 64 percent).
Do women just have a worse experience of marriage, on average, that leaves them more open to divorce and less eager to remarry? Or what’s going on here? Presumably there are a number of factors behind these gender gaps, but one might be differences in how men and women assess the quality of their marriages.
As Scott Stanley has explained on this blog, when rating their marriages and weighing the possibility of divorce, men seem to think more about how much negativity there is in their marriage, while women concentrate more on positive connection. (Here negativity measures “the tendency for arguments to escalate, the use of put-downs, the belief that one’s partner sees one’s own motives too negatively, and the degree to which one or both partners pull away during conflicts,” while positive connection includes “ratings of relationship satisfaction, sensual connection, talking as friends, and having fun with one’s mate.”)
Overall, Dr. Stanley wrote, “for women, ratings on positive connection explained twice as much variance in thinking about divorce as did negativity. For men, it was just the opposite, with negativity explaining almost four times as much variance in thinking about divorce than positivity.” Or more straightforwardly, “thinking about leaving one’s marriage was associated more with an absence of positive connection for women and the presence of negative interaction for men.”
To me, that difference suggests that women may tend to hold their marriages to a higher bar than men. Women don’t want just a low-conflict partnership and a shared household; they want an active, enjoyable, ongoing relationship. Surely men, too, would prefer the latter option, but perhaps they’re more likely to settle for the former, while for women it may be grounds for divorce.
Whatever the reason for the gender gaps here, though, the fact that such a considerable minority of married people have thought about divorce in the past year is striking. Yet it’s not necessarily alarming. As the professor and family therapist Steven Harris has argued, “ambivalence is part and parcel of being in a long-term relationship. How we handle that ambivalence—whether we choose to turn toward, instead of away from, our partners—is what matters.” Considering divorce doesn’t have to lead to a split, and even unhappy marriages can sometimes become happy again.