Is the gender gap narrowing or are fewer ‘sliders’ getting married?

One of my favourite social observations about marriage and relationships comes from my favourite marriage and relationship expert Professor Scott Stanley at University of Denver in the States. A few years ago, he wrote this in his excellent blog:

Men are slowly but steadily achieving less relative to women, in part, because they no longer have to achieve like they used to in order to “get the girl.” (Read the whole article here)

Scott’s insight came to mind when I read a new study that came out a couple of days ago in the American Sociological Review (whole article available here) suggesting that the gender gap in divorce rates has reversed. The study authors – Christine Schwartz and Hongyun Han – found that back in the 1950s, couples had higher divorce rates (on average) when wives were better educated than their husbands. For couples who married in the 1990s, that’s no longer true. What also changed was that couples used to have similar divorce rates regardless of whether the husband was better educated than his wife or they were similarly educated. That’s also no longer true. Better educated husbands now do worse. Finally, overall divorce rates amongst couples with similar education are lower.

Here’s a graphic I did that illustrates all this pictorially.

33 USA gender gap education and divorce 1950 vs 1990sThe authors conclude that this is consistent with the idea that marriage has become more egalitarian. Smarter women are no longer at so much risk of divorce.

We may indeed now be better at treating one another as equals. But there are two other factors which might explain this phenomenon as well or better. They involve two big social changes that have taken place since the 1950s.

(1) Couples no longer have to marry. Back in the 1950s, nearly everybody who wanted to move in together got married. So there would have been some proportion of men – in particular – who may not have bought into lifelong marriage quite so fully. They would have been ‘sliders’ rather than ‘deciders’. This is important because divorce is tied up with commitment and one of the biggest gender differences is whether men – much more so than women – have bought into the marriage for themselves. Since the introduction of the pill and resultant popularity of cohabitation, couples no longer have to marry to move in together. Some men who married in the 1990s will also have slid into marriage through the sheer inertia of living together. But as marriage has become increasingly optional and free from social pressure, those who marry today are overall more likely to be ‘deciders’.

(2) Couples who marry are also more likely to be college graduates, of whom many more are women. Not only have marriage rates gone down but marriage is increasingly seen as a goal rather than a building block, a ‘capstone’ more than ‘cornerstone’. So those who marry tend to be those who have ‘made it’, which favours college graduates.

How might these two trends provide an alternative explanation to gender equality?

For me, the key is in trying to think who might be most committed in a marriage. And when we’re talking about gender differences in commitment, the decision to marry is the big one for men, on average.

So let’s imagine that it’s not egalitarianism that matters but whether men do the deciding – ie there are fewer divorces when men choose their future spouse for themselves and when men really buy into the marriage from the beginning.

Back in the 1950s, everybody got married. It’s therefore easy to imagine that a better educated woman might have been more likely to do the choosing. In which case, the man she chose could well be a ‘slider’, therefore less committed, therefore more at risk of divorce. Hence higher divorce rates. On average.

In the 1990s, fewer people married, of whom a higher proportion were college graduates. Some proportion of these couples would have slid into marriage through the sheer inertia of living together. But perhaps more importantly, men who married better educated women – of whom there were now many more – had really bought into it because there was no longer the social pressure to marry at all. Hence the same divorce rates as couples with similar education.

Finally, it’s easy to explain why overall divorce rates have fallen due to more ‘deciders’ and fewer ‘sliders’ amongst the men. But the one exception remains men who married less well educated women. Is it too much to imagine that some men may have been overwhelmed by looks rather than buying into a life together?

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