Family Matters

Unemployed Men Are More Likely to Divorce

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Once upon a time, men worked, women didn’t and that appeared to be the equation for a harmonious family life. Now, new research shows how much that truism has changed for women but stayed the same for men.

While attitudes about women working have evolved considerably, social pressure on men to be breadwinners is still strong, according to the study, which was published in a recent issue of the American Journal of Sociology. The study shows that unemployment, more than unhappiness in the relationship, predicts divorce — at least for men.

“It’s still unacceptable for men to stay home and take care of the kids,” says Liana Sayer, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study.

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Sayer found that a woman who was very unhappy in her marriage was more likely to begin divorce proceedings if she was working than if she was unemployed. Whether or not a woman worked had no bearing on the chance that her husband would leave the relationship, however.

Unemployed men, on the other hand, faced a double-whammy: they stood a greater chance that their wife would leave them and that they would choose to leave — even if they were fairly satisfied with their relationship.

It’s emblematic of an “assymetrical revolution,” says Sayer. “The role of women has changed a lot, but we have seen far less movement in the roles of men,” says Sayer. “That men be breadwinners still seems to be very salient for couples. If a man is not bringing in some money, it seems to be unacceptable.”

The research relied on data collected from more than 3,600 couples who participated in the National Survey of Families and Households, funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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Researchers presumed that if working women were unhappy in their relationships, they were more likely to have the resources to allow them to leave than women who didn’t work. “We found this, but there is nothing in that argument that says women’s employment itself leads to tension,” says Sayer.

Likewise, they figured that unhappy employed men would be more likely to leave. Yet they didn’t find a correlation. Instead, employment status appeared to be the driving factor that led men to leave their marriage.

Why? It’s not entirely clear, but perhaps it has to do with another related factor: depression. A study in March cautioned that men who lost their jobs during the recent recession may be more likely to suffer depression than women. Healthland’s Alice Park wrote:

With men culturally shouldering the role of primary breadwinner for their families, unemployment hits men particularly hard, as their self-esteem, an important factor in depression risk, is often contingent on their role as provider. … In addition, as more men take on child-rearing responsibilities, they may feel inadequate and overwhelmed, fertile ground for depression.

The findings fall in line with the current study by Ohio State researchers. “For men, not having a job increases the risk he will initiate leaving the relationship, and it also increases the risk women will leave the relationship,” says Sayer. “Men are still held to an older standard than women and penalized by employers and stigmatized if they are doing what’s perceived as women’s work.”

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Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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