Why Don’t Men Initiate Divorce?

New columnist Hugo Schwyzer explains that men are too willing to muddle through a mediocre marriage—and women are less inclined to settle.

Vicki Larson had a piece at the Huffington Post the other day, “Why Women Walk Out More Than Men,” citing research indicating that two-thirds of contemporary divorces are initiated by women. Why, she wonders, are men so comparatively reluctant to file for divorce?

Larson notes the “bad behavior” of men like Sean Penn, Jesse James, Tiger Woods, and Tony Parker, habitual cheaters all, and asks why it was their wives who chose to end the marriages. Is this a case of men trying to have their cake and eat it too, combining domestic comfort and sexual novelty? Larson isn’t sure.

One thing I’m sure of: infidelity is far from the only reason women initiate divorce more often than men.

Though most statistics indicate men are more likely to cheat than women, the percentage of women who are unfaithful is rising. At the same time, the percentage of divorces women initiate is climbing, too. If there were a simple correlation between infidelity and divorce, then we’d expect men to be initiating divorce more often. But that’s not the case.

♦◊♦

The reason women are more likely to leave is less about cheating than it is about their unwillingness to settle.

Men and women are raised with very different attitudes toward marriage. Though marriage rates are falling, popular culture still foists a romantic ideal of connubial bliss onto young girls. When I ask my college students if they’ve ever fantasized in detail about their wedding day, 80 percent of young women raise their hands. (Only about 10 percent of the guys admit to the same.) Yes, young women are more likely to want to delay marriage, but their expectations of romantic fulfillment are as high as ever. Boys, on the other hand, grow up in a “guy” culture that sees marriage as the end of freedom.

Put simply, boys are taught that marriage is about “settling down” while girls are taught that marriage is about finding enduring fulfillment. And it’s obvious who has the higher set of expectations.

♦◊♦

I met the woman who would be my third wife in 2000. I was 33. I had already burned through two ill-advised marriages in my 20s; my drinking, drug use, and infidelity ruined both relationships. At 31, I got sober. I changed my life. After two years of focus on my recovery, I was ready for something completely different, something stable.

Elizabeth was unlike any woman I’d ever been with. There was no destructive, overpowering chemistry. There was no hint of drama. We were intellectually compatible, from similar social backgrounds. We shared the same values and aspirations. She was hitting 30, eager to be married. I was eager to do something right this time. We were engaged within four weeks of our first date and married within a year.

Too many of us confuse being a good man with the willingness to endure.

Elizabeth and I never stopped having those wonderful conversations. We never cheated on each other, never raised our voices in anger to each other, certainly never threw vases or glasses at one another. And of course, we had no “heat” together. The lovemaking was tender but awkward. I couldn’t orgasm without thinking of someone else—and as I found out later, neither could she. By our first anniversary, we were having sex barely once a month.

I never saw it coming. Fifteen months into our marriage, Elizabeth told me calmly that she wanted a divorce. She’d made a mistake, she said, in settling for compatibility and friendship. She wanted more. She deserved more. “And so do you, Hugo,” she added.

I begged her to reconsider. Sure, I’d noticed the lack of passion. Yes, I was unhappy about our sex life. But I was damn sure not going to cheat; after two disastrous failures, I took my marriage vows seriously. Elizabeth and I had a nice house, two nice careers, two nice dogs, many nice friends. At this point in my life, I thought nice was enough. Nice was worth settling for.

Elizabeth wanted more than nice. She wanted passion, romance, and friendship with a spouse. I told her she was unreasonable; she told me I was selling both of us short. She filed for divorce, telling me I’d thank her someday. “When hell freezes over,” I replied.

Six weeks later, hell froze over.

♦◊♦

I moved out of the house I shared with Elizabeth and into a little apartment. A fortnight later, I met the woman who is now my fourth and final wife. We’ve been together over eight years now, and though our marriage is far from perfect, it has the combination of both deep friendship and genuine heat that Elizabeth knew we both deserved.

If I’d had my way, Elizabeth and I would never have divorced. We would have gone on being nice for years and years, each of us vaguely dissatisfied but resolutely committed to what we’d begun. We would have had children. Eventually, one or both of us would have had an affair out of desperation. One way or another, the marriage would have ended. My way would not only have postponed the inevitable, it would have made the inevitable much uglier.

Too many of us confuse being a good man with the willingness to endure. Too many of us think that a “real man” keeps his promises—even when those promises are making him miserable. Good marriages need more than a grim resolve not to leave no matter how bad things get. Men are more likely to forget that than women.

And so, as the statistics tell us, men are more likely to be left.

—Photo by Alex E. Proimos/flickr

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About Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people's attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his website

Comments

  1. kryptogal says:

    It’s very bizarre reading a criticism of men who choose to “endure” in their marriages written by a man who has been divorced three times before the age of 35. I don’t mean to be rude, Hugo, but I hope you can at least appreciate the humor. You’ve been married FOUR times before the age of forty!! I guess it should come as no surprise that you’re a big proponent of trading up.

    I too, am a serial monogamist (though luckily I’ve only been married once), so I identify with your need to convince yourself that THIS time it’s “for real” and to defend your previous divorces/break-ups, since they led you to where you are now, in your “final” marriage. I have the same inclinations. But I must say, reading this article was sort of like reading a satire of my own thoughts taken to a logical extreme, thus revealing my own self-delusion.

    I too was once married, and we divorced because I couldn’t endure the boring sex life, and I knew I could find more satisfying sex and passion elsewhere, which I couldn’t resist. And I’ve been with my current boyfriend for four years, all of which have been extraordinarily fulfilling on a sexual and companionate level, much better than my marriage. But unlike you, I don’t celebrate this. In fact I am ashamed. I was selfish, that’s all there is to it. I put my desires for sexual gratification above all the other interests that marriage promotes, above my ex-husband’s wishes, above my parents’ feelings, etc. And while I don’t think my divorce did *too* much harm, since we had no children and I assuaged a lot of my guilt through the alimony I paid my ex-husband, it still isn’t something I would ever hold up as a social good. To me, the lesson is simply that I shouldn’t have married in the first place, since I was obviously incapable of upholding my vows. And I consider it a failure of character that I did not do so.

    You state that women have higher expectations of marriage than men, and that men are more likely to view it as “settling” and not be bothered when the marriage isn’t romantic and emotionally fulfilling. I agree. But you then argue that the (typical) female perspective is SUPERIOR to the(typical) male perspective, which is where you lose me. Essentially, you are saying that there is a disconnect between expectations and reality when it comes to marriage. But then instead of advocating for modifying those expectations to meet reality, you advocate that it is better to keep one’s expectations high and to modify the reality by divorce. That seems insane to me. Expectations are just ideas in one’s head. Reality is reality. Since happiness is a function of expectations equaling or exceeding reality, then doesn’t it make sense to lower one’s expectations if they don’t concur with reality??

    You didn’t want your third divorce, which occurred because your ex-wife thought she could find a more satisfying sex-life elsewhere, but now you’re okay with it because it turned out that you ended up meeting someone better. But what if you hadn’t? Would your analysis be the same? What if you never found someone again or your next relationship involved even worse sex? What of the 56-year-old woman whose husband divorces her because he finds a more satisfying sex life elsewhere, who is now largely considered undesirable and never finds another mate? Is your analysis still the same? What happens if in another 8 years your sex life cools off substantially and your current wife decides to leave you for someone with whom she has better chemistry? Is your analysis still the same?

    And more to the point: is it really tenable for people to base their marriages on sexual satisfaction, when all evidence points to the fact that we are not naturally monogamous over the long-term? It seems to me that in marriage, one GIVES UP some level of sexual satisfaction in return for more practical benefits: creating a family, wealth consolidation, security, social stability, regular (if not passionate) sex. In this way, the (typical) male perspective on marriage is simply more accurate than whatever visions of romance women have been sold by DeBeers and the wedding industry. And the solution is for us to adjust those skewed expectations of marriage, not to encourage people to divorce. Family dissolution is already a tremendous social problem; I can’t believe you’re essentially encouraging MORE divorce. Your arguments strike me as deeply socially destructive.

    Alternatively, if we are going to continue to conceive of marriage as being primarily about romantic love, then we can expect to continue to watch it decline and eventually disappear. It’s simply not a sustainable model. It’s this simple: if marriage is about sex and romantic love, then marriage serves no purpose, since those things can be had freely without marriage. If, on the other hand, it’s about organizing and stabilizing familial relationships, legal obligations to family members, and ownership of property, then it might remain a viable institution. But social institutions that don’t serve an actual purpose don’t stick around for long. There is just as much (or more) love, companionship, and sex in my current relationship with my boyfriend as there was with my ex-husband. But the difference is that if I break up with my boyfriend, I owe him nothing, while breaking up with my husband meant I incurred weighty legal and financial obligations to him. So I am curious, just what do you think marriage is for?

    In advocating for a hedonistic, personal-happiness-first model of marriage, it seems to me that you are actually advocating for the abolition of the institution altogether, since civil society would have no legitimate reason to be involved in regulating relationships with such goals.

    • What an incredibly honest, relevant, and potent response. In my humble opinion, this post has refuted not one, but every one of Hugo’s points of argument in this blog. I understand this entry is dated, but I find it unfortunate that this post did not receive a proper rebuttal from Hugo. As far as I’m concerned – this response is succinctly successful in unraveling the original argument.

  2. Rain, what I had to cut to fit the word limit was a sentence I ought to have worked in to the effect that this phenomenon stood even when we’re talking about faithful, non-violent unions where there is a roughly egalitarian split in housework and childcare.

    kryptogal, My ex wife didn’t leave me because we didn’t connect sexually. Our lack of sexual connection was a symptom of a deeper incompatibility. Sex waxes and wanes in any marriage. Flames grow weaker. But if the flame was never there in the first place, then trying to deny that “heat” is as vital as any other need shortchanges everyone.

  3. ” this phenomenon stood even when we’re talking about faithful, non-violent unions where there is a roughly egalitarian split in housework and childcare.”

    Which phenomenon? Men not initiating divorce? How men and women are socialized differently? I assumed at first you meant the former, but I don’t see how you could possibly know. First there’s the problem of identifying and defining egalitarian splits in domestic labour. From the housework studies I’ve read about, something even “roughly” egalitarian is quite rare. Then of those egalitarian relationships, you’d have to find ones that have divorced. From those, you’d then be able to find out whether the man or woman initiated the divorce. I don’t think that kind of work has ever been done yet.

    So I guess I don’t understand what you said there.

  4. Maybe its because men stand to lose a lot more when they divorce (financially and otherwise — married men live longer)….

  5. Hugo,
    First of all, thank you for finding me and reading my HuffPost piece. I just stumbled upon your article while looking for another article in the GMPM; glad I did.

    In reading what you wrote, it seems more an issue of marrying the wrong people than marriage=settling. Who would argue with “settling” with the right person? (Of course, when Lori Gottlieb suggested that in her book, “Marry Him!,” it got a lot of women upset). That’s choosing wisely, not “settling.”

    In my article, I did take not of other reasons for divorce besides infidelity, as well as the fact that women cheat and behave “badly,” too (and for the record, the “bad behavior” was a quote from the National Marriage Project, not mine).

    Still, I found this paragraph of yours telling:

    “I begged her to reconsider. Sure, I’d noticed the lack of passion. Yes, I was unhappy about our sex life. But I was damn sure not going to cheat; after two disastrous failures, I took my marriage vows seriously. Elizabeth and I had a nice house, two nice careers, two nice dogs, many nice friends. At this point in my life, I thought nice was enough. Nice was worth settling for.”

    Because taking your marriage vows seriously and doing the right thing would mean that if you were unhappy with the sex and passion, you wouldn’t cheat — you’d divorce first and then screw someone else. I’m not sure why people don’t understand that. Cheating never makes a marriage better (although, yes; for some people, it gets them to wake up and refocus their energy on their spouse. Lovely. But if that spouse should ever discover the betrayal, there will very ugly, unhappy repercussions).

    Anyway, glad you found “the one.” Although I just wrote about multiple marriages (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vicki-larson/once-mrs-twice-mrs-three-_b_814728.html); the divorce rate is very high.

  6. Of course it’s complicated and there are lots of factors at work. Divorce is an event that happens a thousand times a day with people all over the country. But, I think the article is onto something about expectations going in to marriage. There’s a good argument to be made that women are generally likely to have higher expectations of marriage than men do, or maybe demand more from marriage than men do. Maybe for wives there is a bigger letdown after the honeymoon period than there is for men, so the disappointment hits them harder than for men. It may be that married women define themselves by their marriage more than their husbands do, so a larger part of their lives is affected by a bad marriage than it would be for their husbands.

    In the end, it could just be that marriage as it is practiced in large numbers in the US today is something that works for men more than it works for women. There seems to be an assumption here that men and women experience marriage the same way and it’s just that women give up first, but that’s not necessarily the case.

  7. Men are the victims of this feminist culture which places all the blame on men’s shoulders. Even women are waking up to this hypocrisy as this video proves: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plkeKMTDM9g

  8. I totally agree with you Hugo. Great article, and oh-so true.

  9. I was in the same boat, and actually was very unhappy for years. I felt as if I was drowning, suffering and my ex played with my emotions. I initiated my breakup and mentioned divorce many times before I walked out with my daughter. This article really touches me because this was me. There was no passion, or heat, that was the worst feeling. I slowly felt like I was losing me and I did, for a while. Was I selfish; yes I wanted to be happy, did I harm my child; yes. I feel happy now and I would not want my daughter to see us slowly dying. That is not how relationships are supposed to work. You cant have a perfect relationship but I think that settling is signing your life away. My ex is so complacent and that what kills me, he seems to not want to reach for the stars and I do. I am finally rediscovering myself. The result of our continued union would be cheating, I was very close. I am a good mom and always be there for my daughter, and I seriously think this has made me a better woman. Thanks Hugo.

  10. If I could do one thing to save marriage today, it would be removing all of the bullshit, Oprah-change your man crap is in the media. Don’t get me wrong, I love weddings and grew up in a religious conservative family that cherished marriage above all else but if you believe that walking down the isle is going to be the answer to all of life’s questions you are sorely mistaken.
    A short time ago I saw the second twilight movie, and though it wasn’t all bad, I really didn’t like the bit at the end when the two guys sat there talking about their feelings for half an hour – guys don’t do that you see, it’s just a female pornographic fantasy, like the pizza guy who scores a 3-way in male porn.
    All I’m saying is that it seems today that ridiculous female expectations of men are acceptable but most men know that porn is just fantasy. Until women start to realize that Oprah is completely full of shit and men haven’t changed in 100,00 years they are going to be on the hunt for the ‘perfect guy’ and miss out on decent, normal guys that come along.
    Let’s keep heterosexuality going, it’s the reason we’re all here.

    • Lolabunny says:

      Oh my god.
      Men talk about their feelings to each other in my Country. And for real, equating it to a “pornographic” fantasy? What the heck? lol.
      That is not ridiculous that women expect men to be in tune with their emotions and feeling and that they will be emotionally intelligent. And men keep changing, all the time.
      I am here because of heterosexuality? Nah, my father is bisexual..

  11. In my limited experience, when the women initiates the divorce/break-up it’s only after the man has practically forced her into it. I think men are less comfortable being seen as the “bad guy” who abandons his wife and kids, and would rather be passive-aggressive and force a preemptive strike by the wife.

    • BS, if you look at statistics, women initiate first and gets guy by surprise in majority of cases. Guys role is normally to be more aggressive, to think he would be passive aggressive in this case is dumb, and research supports it if you google it. Author hit a nail on a head, guys ready to settle down, while women want romance and friendship. Two words that doesn’t work well together. In fact nice guys who try to start with friendship, most of the time fail and get no romance.

      • Lolabunny says:

        Get them by surprise because men believe women will actually keep putting up with bullshit eternally.
        Of course women want romance (ignites passion) and friendship. If your partner can’t be a friend they are useless. Women get bored with sex too fast in general, they need new stimulation, more romance, passion. Women didn’t create marriage and weren’t born to be with one man only for the rest of their lives, with the plus that females in nature are always looking for a better male (better genes/sperm) to mate with.
        And are these nice guys handsome? or just nice, but ugly guys who still want a pretty girl? No romance for them then, I guess.

  12. Hugo. I’m sorry any of us go through this. I’m not going into one-upmanship, but I can’t wait till I get to my disclosure article where my abuse as a child was heinous leveraged against me. I was shown at gun-point by two sheriffs who sneak-attacked me in my own shower…oy vey…too much to tell and its all sick-making. $140,000 in lawyer fees alone, I was horse-dragged through life.

    Well written article sir! I feel relief when I read such things…that I’m not alone in many aspects.

  13. I think more women initiate divorce more for several reasons…

    1. Women gre up listening to stories of divorced women that took their exhusband for everything he was worth. They got part of his retirement, house, house contents, children, car etc… It gets worse if the divorced woman went on to find a man that had more money or was better looking. Divorce is then viewed as a positive that enriches a woman and creates options and opportunity. It is fortunate for males the courts are more interested in justice and equity now as my exwife found out to her horror. (No princess you are not getting everything just because you are female.)

    2. Women are wrapped up in how they feel . Instead of problem solving or addressing why they feel a certain way its easier to pull the plug and feel better instantly. This only postpones the real issues for the next relationship she will enter.

    3. She has a larger number of female friends, relatives and co-workers that are divorced. She then gets to here a nonstop litany of male bashing and gets negative advice.

    4. Hollywood glamorizes divorce by showing the postives. Female audiences want to see strong independent women that left their horrible husbands and went on to live in Shangrila finding true love in the process. Hollywood rarely shows the downside of divorce.

    • hear a nonstop litany (need to spell check)

    • Lolabunny says:

      Actually most women initiate divorce out of boredom. Bored of their men, bored with their sex lives. It doesn’t help that most men in North America are not fit, are usually not vain enough and ugly, are freaking bad in bed and not as giving (women give much more – oral sex, handjobs, dirty surprises, etc. – and make their men come much more, almost 80% of the men achieve orgasm all the time, while only 30% of women achieve orgasms all the time with their partners, intercourse is a given but it doesn’t focus on the woman’s pleasure, men believe sex ends when they ejaculate, etc. …not to mention again that women take much more care about their appearance and that also contributes to more visual stimulation for men, women do not receive the same back from their men), don’t believe household chores are 50% their responsibility and so on.
      Women want novelty. And that is biological. That is what keeps a woman’s (or any other female of any specie) sexuality healthy. The passion that novelty (more romance or new partners) brings is necessary, and if not there, women feel they are better off just having no sex at all.

  14. wellokaythen says:

    (This has been up for a year and a half, so I may have already said this.)

    The question of child custody has to play a big role in many cases. The divorce structure most often means that a man who gets divorced will get less time with his children, so a man who asks for divorce is asking for something that means he will be less able to see his children grow up. A woman who asks for divorce generally has less danger of “losing her kids” to the divorce.

    We could actually test this with the statistics. If there are no children in the marriage, are the percentages the same? Are men without kids more willing to ask for divorce than men who have kids? I honestly don’t know.

  15. Yeah, let’s take marriage advice from a guy on his fourth wife. It’s a good thing you don’t have any kids from a previous marriage, bro. I’m sure people with habits like yours will totally allow for stable households raising children who don’t grow up and commit crimes.

  16. One thing that is overlooked here is that women have a huge financial incentive to divorce where as men do not.

Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Hugo Schwyzer and The Good Men Project, Eric – BHF. Eric – BHF said: I just left a comment disagreeing with a post about men and divorce on @GoodMenProject by @hugoschwyzer, what do u think? http://ht.ly/3Ol5Z […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Hugo Schwyzer, Laura Novak. Laura Novak said: Hugo Schwyzer: Why don't men initiate divorce? — The Good Men Project Magazine http://t.co/dZKlGfr […]

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