Men love to grill. Women be shoppin'. There are a lot of silly gender stereotypes floating around out there. Luckily, as a culture, we have finally begun to realize how damaging they can be, especially for the ladies. But did you know they can hurt men, too—particularly when guys fail to live up to society's decidedly retro expectations?
In a new study that echoes on previous research, Harvard sociologist Alexandra Killewald found that husbands who aren't able to play the role of "breadwinner" are more likely to get divorced—and, surprisingly, not (just) because their family is suffering financially.
For the study, published in the American Sociological Review, Killewald analyzed marriage and divorce data of 6,300 couples from 1968 to 2013. Her goal was to investigate various predictors of divorce—including wives’ employment, husbands’ employment, share of household labor, and overall finances—and how those predictors have changed over time.
To accomplish this goal, Killewald separated marriage data into two groups: those who married before 1975 and those who married after 1975. To keep things fair, while crunching the divorce data she also controlled for a plethora of variables including race, religion, education, marital fertility, and length of marriage.
After analyzing the data, Killewald found that in marriages prior to 1975, a husband's full-time employment status did not predict his chances of divorce. For example, an employed husband had a 1% chance of getting divorced the next year, versus an unemployed husband who had a 1.1% chance. Pretty even, right?
Instead, risk of divorce was highly dependent on the wives' share of the housework. Women who only did 50% of the housework were more likely to get divorced than women who did 75% of the housework. At the time, women were expected to take care of the home and children, and when they didn't live up to that expectation, their marriages suffered for it.
The good news is that times have changed. More women are graduating college than men, women make up half of the labor force, and dual-income households are becoming the norm. And thus, since fewer women are relegated to housewifery, their share of household chores is no longer a predictor of divorce: Killewald found that women who did 50% of household labor versus 75% were equally likely to get divorced. (Hooray?)
The bad news is marriage stability may now be dependent on a man's ability to find employment, which is lame considering how challenging the current job market can be (especially for men). In marriages after 1975, men who were unemployed or only had part-time employment had a greater chance of getting divorced in the next year compared to men who were employed full time.
In the later cohort, an otherwise typical couple with a husband not employed full-time has a 3.3% predicted probability of divorce the following year, compared to 2.5% if he is employed full-time. Across wife’s employment and housework categories, the predicted probability of divorce varies little for this cohort.
While the difference may seem small, it's statistically significant.
You may be thinking, well, this is simply a financial thing—if one partner is unemployed, the couple may face financial stress and the marriage will suffer. But Killewald controlled for overall income. "The association between husbands' employment and the risk of divorce remains after adjusting for financial circumstances," she told me over email. "So it doesn't appear to be the case that it's just the loss of money that increases the risk of divorce when husbands are not employed full-time. In fact, I don't find that couples are more likely to divorce when their household income is lower."
What Killewald did find is that, despite our culture's slow shift toward egalitarianism, men are still expected to be breadwinners—or at least contribute to breadwinning in some way—and when they don't, their marriage suffers. "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,” Killewald said in a statement.
But why? Outdated social norms, of course. "The results are consistent with the theory that marriage is a social institution that has gendered norms of behavior associated with it, including the expectation that husbands are employed full-time," Killewald told me over email. "But I can't tell whether that expectation comes from the husband, the wife, or even outsiders—like peers or extended family."
Previous research backs up the study's findings, but it offers little insight into the source of this expectation and the pressure many men feel.
A 2011 study from Ohio State University found that unemployed men were more likely to get divorced than employed men, with unemployed men both initiating and being served with divorce. The researchers reached a similar conclusion as Killewald, writing: "Women's employment has increased and is accepted, [but] men's nonemployment is unacceptable to many, and there is a cultural ambivalence and lack of institutional support for men taking on 'feminized' roles such as household work and emotional support."
The latter part of that statement is vital, particularly bearing in mind that men who are unemployed still don't take on the brunt of the housework (in the way a non-working woman might). Sure, it's possible that men are simply slacking—or they might feel uncomfortable in a so-called "feminized role," thanks to pre-existing gender norms. Or a combination of both.
The growing body of research on this topic does reveal one clear truth: Gendered expectations placed on both women and men can negatively influence our relationships. And while there may be a growing trend of men aspiring to "house husband" status and breaking down traditional norms, we're still a long way off from a total dismantling of the patriarchal system.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.