Which sex is mostly to blame for divorce? The answer seems obvious every
time a mogul like Donald Trump or Ronald Perelman or Rupert Murdoch dumps
Conservative preachers and liberal feminists are united in their disdain for
philandering men who abandon their children. Journalists (including this
one) and politicians of all persuasions have righteously condemned "deadbeat
dads." Even Hollywood professes to be appalled at the cads depicted in "The
First Wives Club."
But there's a problem with the conventional wisdom. Across America, at
least two-thirds of divorce suits are filed by women. Researchers who have
interviewed divorcing couples have repeatedly found that, in cases where the
divorce is not mutually desired, women are more than twice as likely to be
the ones who want out. After the split, women are typically happier than
This trend has inspired what is probably the first paper in the American
Journal of Law and Economics ever to be named after a Nancy Sinatra song.
In "These Boots Are Made for Walking: Why Most Divorce Filers Are Women,"
Margaret F. Brinig and Douglas Allen, both economists, analyze all 46,000
divorces filed in one year, 1995, in four different states: Connecticut,
Virginia, Montana and Oregon.
They looked for different reasons that would prompt a woman to file for
divorce. One would be to escape an abusive husband -- like a man who is
adulterous or violent. But in the state with the best records of grievances,
Virginia, only 6 percent of divorces were granted on grounds of violence,
and husbands were cited for adultery only slightly more often than wives.
"Some women file for divorce because they're exploited in really bad
marriages," said Dr. Brinig, a professor of law at the University of Iowa.
"But it seems to be a relatively small number, probably less than 20 percent
of the cases."
Another impetus to divorce is the belief that your partner is no longer good
enough for you. The classic example is the guy who takes a trophy wife
after dumping the high-school sweetheart who sacrificed her own potential to
put him through medical school, but a woman can be similarly tempted to
leave a husband who is less successful than she is.
The researchers found that the better-educated partner, male or female, was
indeed more likely to file for divorce. But again these types of divorces
seemed to represent less than 20 percent of the cases.
The solution to the mystery, the factor that determined most cases, turned
out to be the question of child custody. Women are much more willing to
split up because -- unlike men -- they typically do not fear losing custody
of the children. Instead, a divorce often enables them to gain control over
"The question of custody absolutely swamps all the other variables," Dr.
Brinig said. "Children are the most important asset in a marriage, and the
partner who expects to get sole custody is by far the most likely to file
The correlation with custody is so strong, Dr. Brinig said, that she has
changed her view about the best way to preserve marriages and protect
children. She previously advocated an end to quick no-fault divorces, but
she now believes that the key is to rewrite custody laws.
In most states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, mothers can
fight for and usually win sole custody. But some states have recently begun
making joint custody the presumptive norm.
That change in the law seems to be keeping more couples together, according
to this study and other work by Dr. Brinig. She and colleagues have noted a
decline in divorce in states with joint-custody laws. And when couples do
divorce, fathers who share custody are less likely to renege on their
Dr. Brinig favors a law like the one recently enacted in West Virginia,
which typically awards each parent a share of custody according to how much
time that parent spent with the child during the marriage. Besides
eliminating some of the vicious court fights that now take place over
custody, she said, such a law could lead to fewer divorces.
"Custody is now a way -- in some marriages the only way -- for women to
achieve a real show of force over men," Dr. Brinig said. "If you remove
that distortion, it's apt to change the way men and women relate to each
other and to their kids. Fathers are likely to spend more time with kids if
they can expect to still see them if the marriage doesn't work out. Women
will be more likely to see men as parenting partners, and less likely to use
divorce as a power play."