Are Men Asleep in Their Marriage?

As we look for insight on why women are often the ones seeking to dissolve a marriage let’s begin with the data.  Numerous studies have shown that nearly 70 percent of divorces are initiated by women?  – this is according to a 2015 research study conducted by the American Sociological Association (ASA) which suggests two-thirds of all divorces are initiated by women. Among college-educated women, this number jumps up to 90%.

What are the gender differences in how men and women appraise the health of their marriage? Do women have a higher standard in appraising the health of their marriage?  

My research revealed three possible factors why women initiate divorce:

1 – Women are more likely to feel held back by the marriage.

The fact is that today, women are working more than they ever have and make up a little over half of the workforce in the United States. However, in many marriages women are still seen as primarily responsible for domestic duties. Despite having more on their plates with their careers.

Michael Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University and author of the ASA study stated, “I think that marriage as an institution has been a little bit slow to catch up with expectations for gender equality. Wives still take their husbands’ surnames, and are sometimes pressured to do so. Husbands still expect their wives to do the bulk of the housework and the bulk of the childcare.”

What’s more is that other studies have shown that when both parties in a marriage are employed full-time, the woman in the relationship still does more housework than men in the relationship.

A 2019 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that on an average day in 2018, 20 percent of men did housework—such as cleaning or laundry—compared with 49 percent of women. What this tells us is that there is inequality in the average household when it comes to domestic duties and labor among men and women. For married parties who have at least similar responsibilities from a full-time career, it is still women who are doing more of the work around the home as well.

In addition, women often find that their husbands are not supportive when they are highly successful in their careers. In a 2019 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, which included over 6,000 American heterosexual couples over 15 years, many men experienced “psychological distress” if their wives made more than 40% of the household income in a marriage.

So if a woman has high expectations and responsibilities from her career, high expectations and responsibilities at home, and does not have support from her husband on career advancement, she may not find the marriage to be in her best interest anymore.

2 – Women often take on more of the emotional burden.

Communication is key in any marriage, but often an area where many couples struggle. Generally, men are not sufficiently taught how they can communicate and process emotions. As a result, women in marriages find they often will take on more of the emotional responsibilities. In some cases, this may include being the sole emotional support system for the entire family. Over time, this does take a toll on a person – mentally, physically and certainly emotionally. Without emotional support from husbands, wives are often left feeling alone and without a source of support within the marriage.

3 – Women no longer tolerate consistent unacceptable behavior.

At a point in history, women did not work as much as today. Because of this, wives would rely more so on their husbands for financial security. Even at the expense of abusive and negligent behavior. Today, this is not the case as much.  As a result, women are not willing to put up with consistent unacceptable behavior from their husbands for financial security.   This is especially relevant for college educated women with career choices.

Dori Schwartz, a divorce mediator and coach says, “Today’s modern woman is more unlikely to put up with infidelity. Once the honeymoon period is over, some men drastically change their behavior from romantic to controlling and emotionally abusive. Unfortunately, this happens in many marriages, and women don’t want to take it anymore.”


It certainly appears that many men are asleep in their marriages. This would explain why the many disappointments and discontent that women are experiencing in marriage are ignored or trivialized by their husbands.   Is it reasonable to hypothesize that being asleep is really the fact that men accept a mediocre relationship as normal and are men more likely to view a divorce as a failure rather than an ending?  This explanation might let some men off the hook but the reality is that men need to be paying closer attention to the health of their marriages and be willing to take steps to keep a marriage alive and thriving. 

Men and Gray Divorce

It’s  no secret that midlife or “gray” divorce is skyrocketing at the same time the overall divorce rate is declining.  In addition, according to the AARP, 66 percent of these divorces — which have doubled since 1990 — are initiated by women.  But the numbers, without any narrative, are just numbers. They don’t tell us why so many women, seemingly in droves, are making this heartbreakingly difficult decision at this stage in life.  Nor do they explain why women do better socially and emotionally in their post gray divorce lives.  A survey prepared by a prominent psychologist tried  to find out more. Hundreds of women post gray divorce took the survey and told their stories. Over 50% indicated emotional abuse as the main reason for initiating the divorce.  However, the question is, “Is this number higher for gray divorce?”  The findings of the survey are contradicted by a research paper in an established scientific journal which reported that, “older females reported experiencing less emotional abuse than older males. Overall, emotional abuse was more common in younger participants. “

How do we explain the stark differences between the therapist’s survey and the research article.  One possibility is that men feel more shame from emotional abuse and therefore in a survey format would less likely admit to or initiate divorce based on that abuse.  However, if emotional abuse is not the driving factor for the increasing gray divorce rate what  else is going on?  One might reasonably conclude that the pandemic has put additional strain on the gray couple.  For the most part gray couples have been married for a considerable time period and are most likely empty nesters.  Couples experiencing the empty nest have to readjust to the fact that the day to day raising of children is often a diversion from examining their needs and how the relationship is meeting those needs.  Adding to the problem is the issue of how the pandemic isolates couples from the workplace, social activities, recreation pursuits and their extended families.  The isolation forces a gray couple to look to each other, almost exclusively, for fulfillment.  This exclusivity highlights the fault lines in their relationship and can lead to the decision to separate.

The differences between how men and women fare post gray divorce again reveals the social isolation and depression that men, especially in middle age, experience.   One explanation is that in most marriages women usually take care of the social calendar.  Often couple socializing is based more on the women’s friendships rather than the friendship between the men.  Post divorce, the women continue their friendships while the men have less of a connection.  Many women in middle age experience a new sense of freedom when they divorce later in life.  They often feel like their needs and ambitions have been constrained by traditional marital roles – raising kids, household chores, deference to their spouse’s careers – and see post divorce as an opportunity to grow and fully express themselves.  Men in middle age have usually peeked in their careers and look to maintenance and easing of stress which is often incompatible with what their wives are needing.  This probably accounts for the fact that so many men who seek out men’s groups are in the process of divorce or are recently divorced.  The group provides the much needed connections to maintain mental health and provides a forum for forming new friendships.  It is indeed unfortunate that so many men, especially after a break up in marriage or a relationship, are unaware of the power of men’s work and slide into depression, substance abuse and suicide. 

Look to the next blog to explore why women initiate divorce far more often than men.