When Husbands Don’t Work, Marriages Fall Apart

Much has changed in marriages since the '70s, but men in heterosexual marriages are still expected to financially support their families.

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It’s easy to know why couples divorce. What’s difficult to figure out is if couples will divorce. The business of divorce prediction, that is to say, is murky. However, there is one factor that’s one of the best predictors for the collapse of contemporary heterosexual marriages: whether the husband is working full-time. It has nothing to do with money or whether the wife is working too. When husbands don’t work, things fall apart. Why? Well, that’s when the data gets really interesting.

This revelation is just one of many to come from the work of Alexandra Killewald. A professor of sociology at Harvard, Killewald takes a statistical approach to inequality in the United States, focusing primarily on the relationships between work, family, and income. The finding above, for example, comes from a 2016 study Killewald published in American Sociological Review. Using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which represents data from 1968 to 2013, and looking at such various points as employment, financial status, and household chores, Killewald searched for divorce predictors. She looked at 6,309 heterosexual couples and discovered that, in couples who were married before 1975, divorce was likelier if husbands and wives split the housework. After 1975? It had nothing to do with housework and everything to do with a husband’s job.

We spoke to Killewald about this and her research, what the data tells us about the nature of modern American marriages, and why, despite progress, society can’t seem to shake the idea of the husband as breadwinner.

Much of your work focuses on inequality as it relates to marriage and income. First of all, what have you discovered around salary?

Well, some of my work looks at the workplace, like does whether you have a kid affect how much you earn? In general, dads make a little more than childless men, but moms earn less than childless women. Research suggests that women earn less because they take time off to care for children. It’s the motherhood wage penalty. It could be that moms change jobs, but some of it is still unexplained. My work is quantitative and statistical, so I can’t observe all the factors.

Based on what you know of other research, can you take a guess?

One possibility is moms are blocked from taking higher paying jobs, but it’s also possible they take lower paying jobs, or they forgo a promotion because it would require travel or it would mean a 90-minute commute. Or being a manager would mean being on call, so part of it could be a choice. But it’s usually moms that make this choice or trade-off.

So this is still about traditional roles.

Absolutely. When couples become parents together, they both do more housework, but the increase on her is more.

Why is that?

I can’t always peek into people’s lives of why they do what they do, but it could be based on who makes more. But, even when she makes more, it’s still the mom who cuts back on her paid work to take on more unpaid work.

In your work, you’ve looked at couples married before and after 1975. Why that break?

The specific year doesn’t necessarily matter. That timeframe saw expectations changing for women. What I did see was that in earlier marriages [pre-‘75] when women did more housework, the marriages were more stable.

And how did women doing housework affect the post-’75 couples?

Whether a couple divorced was independent of how much housework a woman was doing. Things actually haven’t changed that much. In the earlier cohorts, she did 81 percent of housework, and in later ones, it was 72 percent.

So what’s the cause for the rise in divorce?

That’s a little outside my area. It could be attitudes and laws that have changed. My research isn’t about why the divorce rate has gone up. It’s about what characteristics of a couple are associated with a higher risk of divorce and have those risk factors changed.

You’ve also found that another risk for divorce was a husband not being fully employed.

Yeah. Culturally, our expectation is that men who can work should work. That hasn’t changed. We still expect men to be the breadwinner. That doesn’t mean women can’t as well.

If you were to take an educated guess about the reason behind this, what do you think the reason is?

If the expectation is from him, he could become depressed, drink more, and do other unhelpful behaviors for the marriage. It’s also possible that wives expect husbands to work full-time and when they don’t, they think that’s a signal about not being a good husband. Another possibility is that other people around the couple could have opinions about him being out of work and that could affect the stability. The social network could provide less support.

Does a husband’s salary come into play?

I didn’t find evidence that that matters. It’s not about less money. It’s about something about work itself. It speaks to expectations that men work full-time for pay. If the husband works full-time and the wife makes more money, it’s not a problem. Likewise, if he works full-time and doesn’t have a big paycheck, regardless of how much she’s working or how much she earns, that’s not a factor.

What about men and housework?

They’re doing a larger share than they used to. Pre-‘75 it was 19 percent, post-’75, it’s 28.

What about a 50/50 split?

It’s quite uncommon for men to do more than 50. In 90 percent of the couples, she does at least half.

That’s not a problem?

It’s what feels fair or not fair. It’s not an accounting framework, but if both are working full-time and the husband doesn’t help with housework, the couple is at higher risk. No one wants to feel like they’re doing everything.

Is there a reason the breadwinner expectation persists?

The feminist movement helped expand women’s options, and women had a lot of incentives to do that, to be financially independent and have access to high-status jobs. But we don’t consider caregiving to be a high prestige role, so there hasn’t been a social movement that has men protesting for paternity leave. I think that many men do wish they could spend more time with their kids.

How has this impacted men?

If you expect men to work full-time, you constrain men’s options. With dads, we have fewer variations. It’s so expected that dads work full-time. Imagine being a dad and going to the boss and saying, ‘I want to work part-time for the next five years.’ I think that’s less common and more stigmatized.

And that ties back to the breadwinner concept.

It’s because it narrows expectations. When men deviate, like not working full-time, it may cause a strain because it’s a new circumstance for a couple. It’s not the only thing that plays into the risk factors, but we haven’t had a high profile social movement that focuses on men’s options so we’re stuck with the male breadwinner norm.

What would you like research to look at?

I’d like to know more about couples who choose for him to cut back and who also have flexible arrangements with men being able to work from home and take on some caregiving even if they’re employed full-time. The statistical analyses don’t exist yet in full.

It’d be nice to see what the research shows for that segment.

Whenever we can understand variation and trendsetters, not just what’s typical, that can give a more complete picture and what might be a path to social change.

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