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.
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