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How’s the marriage? The wife will know

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A study of more than 6,000 married couples, conducted between 1988 and 1994, shows that characteristics and attitudes of the wife are almost always better indicators of whether the marriage will break up than are characteristics and attitudes of the husband.

Women are more likely to file for divorce than men. Women are also more likely to say they want the marriage to end.

For example, in the National Survey of Families and Households, 37 percent of divorced women said they wanted the marriage to end but their husbands did not. In comparison, only 14 percent of the men said they wanted the marriage to end and the wife did not.

Risk ratios can be used to show the relative importance of each spouse's characteristics. For example, husbands who marry young are 1.27 times more likely to break up than are husbands who marry in their mid-twenties. In comparison, wives who marry young are 1.62 times more likely to end their marriage than are wives who married in their mid-twenties.

The accompanying chart compares risk ratios for various attributes of each spouse. As shown, the wife has a greater risk for each given factor than the husband. Marriages are more likely to end if the spouses were young when married, lived with only one parent when they were 14, say the marriage is unhappy, say the marriage is in trouble, say that the marriage has only a 50-50 chance of success or say that spending and child-care responsibilities are unfair.

In each case, the risk ratio is greater for the wife than for the husband. For the attributes shown here, the wives' risk ratios are about 20 percent larger than the husbands'. The difference is much greater when each spouse is simply asked how likely it is that the couple will stay together. In this case, the risk ratio for wives is three times larger than for the husbands. In other words, a wife's assessment of the marriage is generally more reliable than a husband's.

Social scientists are not certain of all the reasons that wives are better predictors of what will happen to the marriage than are husbands. Some psychologists say that females are better at understanding interpersonal relationships. Sociologists are more likely to emphasize that women usually invest more time and energy in the marital relationship and child-rearing than men do, so they have more reason to get out of a bad relationship.

Another recent study noted that women usually file for divorce because they are more concerned with custody of the children. Those who believe that men have more power in marital relationships would say that women leave because they do not have enough influence to make the relationship better.

Whatever the reason, it appears that many women have enough power to leave an unhappy relationship.

Tim Heaton is the Associate Director of the Family Studies Center at Brigham Young University.