Why marriages don’t last anymore

In 2019, the divorce rate stood at 43%. That’s just official marriages. If we were able to take into account committed de facto relationships, which constitute a significant proportion of relationships today, that figure would rise substantially.

So, the people who talk about relationships not lasting as long anymore have a point.

As always, we need to look at statistics in their wider historical context and consider the relevant socio-political changes occurring at the time to reveal their deeper meaning. So it is with relationship durability and breakups.

Cherchez la femme

As a couple therapist of many years’ standing, I’m often asked why I think relationships don’t last like they used to anymore. In this piece, I’m talking about heterosexual relationships.

Typically, right after being asked for my opinion, I’m immediately subjected to some person’s polemic about divorce. These self-styled experts usually insist that the reason relationships don’t last is based on ‘people’ not being serious enough, committed enough, and generally being selfish. For ‘people’, read women. Whichever way we might want to cut this cake, armchair experts seem to agree—it’s women’s fault that relationships don’t last.

Typically, they tell me that it’s women who are frivolous, who just think about themselves, who are greedy and ‘want it all’, and who are not prepared to do the hard work of committed relationships anymore. Sometimes, older people also blame the ready availability of pre-marital sex as another cause of men not wanting to commit. Some even insist that women just want to ‘bludge on the system’ and live on welfare or child payments. 

More recently (June 2021), one of our conservative MPs told a committee that women are outsourcing their parental responsibilities in using childcare (!) and cited this as his reason not to support an increase in childcare subsidy for the rising costs of childcare.  One wonders if such a comment would ever be levelled at the Prime Minister for the fact he goes to work and relies on his female partner to raise the children in his absence?

I have yet to hear anyone who tries to engage me on this topic speculate about what part they think men, as a gender, might be playing in this issue. Given relationship involves two peoples’ choices and behaviours, I find it fascinating how quickly so many people place responsibility for marriages not lasting at women’s door. To me, it reflects how entrenched patriarchy and its tenets still are in dictating peoples’ worldview. No matter how far we in the West might think we’ve progressed, our baseline assumptions are that we still see relationships and family as women’s realm, women’s work, women’s responsibility. Based on this line of reasoning, it follows that, if a relationship such as a marriage ends, it ‘must’ be the woman’s fault.

Now for some facts…

Some background to relationship breakups

Before offering any psychological or sociological ideas on this issue of relationship durability, let’s explore the wider historical and socio-political context. Here, my focus is just on Australia.

The available statistics show:

  • People[i] are less inclined to marry. The crude marriage rate has dropped steadily in the 20 years to 2020 from six to 4.5 marriages per 1000 population
  • People are getting married later. In the 20 years to 2019, the median age at marriage increased from 27.9 to 30.5 years for women, and from 30.1 to 32.3 years for men
  • Interestingly, over the 20 years to 2019, the median duration of time from marriage to separation is getting longer: for separation, duration lengthened from 7.9 years to 8.5 years, and for divorce, duration also lengthened from 11.3 to 12.2 years
  • The crude divorce rate over the 20 years to 2019 has dropped from 2.8 to 1.0 per 1000 population

These statistics give us a picture of what happens with people and marriages. And it also shows that divorce is complicated.

Women leaving marriages – hardly the easy option

In 2020, there were 7.2 million families, of which 14.2% were one-parent families. Single mothers head 79.3% of one-parent families. [Labor Force Status of Families, June 2020, ABS]. Between 1960 and 2016, the percentage of children living exclusively with their mothers nearly tripled from 8% to 23%. The percentage living only with their fathers rose from 1% to 4% during the same time period [census.gov.au]. Since no-fault divorce became a reality in 1985, 69% of all divorces are initiated by women … despite the fact that women are financially worse off afterward.

In 2019, the Council of Single Mothers and Their Children reported that 65% of single mothers are in paid employment, yet struggle financially. Almost half of the respondents cited violence as a key reason behind their decision to leave a relationship. Two-thirds of single-mother families had 1–2 children under the age of 12 [“One in eight families” report].

So, at a glance, we see that if women do leave a relationship, violence is part of the reason for a significant number of women. If women have children, they take the children with them when they leave and are more likely to end up being single parents. More often, it’s women who bear the cost of raising their children alone. Most single mothers are in paid work and do not rely on government benefits. Whether employed or on a benefit, being a single mother often means living in poverty and facing a precarious financial future.

Yet, despite the financial hardship that often comes with divorce when children are involved, and the ongoing stigma of being a single mother, women still choose to leave. This suggests that women actively choose to leave despite considerable negative economic disincentives. Why? Because, in the last 50 years, largely thanks to the work of feminist activists, women’s status has gradually changed from one of obligatory servitude to the men they marry, to one of having a real choice.

What it takes for a woman to be free to choose a committed relationship

Choosing to stay in any relationship is predicated first and foremost on being able to choose to leave. That choice is predicated on being safe, first and foremost, and on having access to resources.

If a person:

  • can’t freely leave a relationship
  • can’t leave safely knowing they and their children will be safe from violence
  • has no or limited means to provide for themselves financially and
  • has restricted access to work and resources due to systemic discrimination and prejudice

then we cannot say they ‘choose’ to stay.

Full stop.

In Australia, on average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner. Approximately one in four women experience violence from an intimate partner, compared to one in 13 men.

Without a baseline of feeling safe, a person’s primary preoccupation will centre on survival and the basic concerns around that. For any life form, survival trumps everything else.

What do I mean when I talk about ‘survival’?

  • Safety – the right and freedom to come or go and be safe from harm in doing so. The right to be treated with dignity and respect. The right to choose with whom she associates, and to have her choices respected. Safety here involves not being subjected to violence or coercive control for exercising choice.
  • Body autonomy – this is closely related to safety. Here, I mean a woman’s control over her own body. The right to choose one’s sexual partners, and access to safe, affordable contraception.
  • Financial independence – the right to work and earn a living wage. The right to manage one’s own money, to get credit on one’s own terms.
  • Education – the research is clear that when women are educated, they marry later, have children later, have fewer children, get better paying jobs in careers they pursue. Education opens the door to women’s participation in society at the decision-making level of money, jobs and power.

If we really want to up the ante, let’s throw in affordable healthcare and childcare, real family-friendly employment laws, effective laws to address family and gendered violence, and let’s get serious about employing more women in higher-paying roles.

Let’s look at the social, political, economic, and legal factors that have gradually freed women to choose whether to stay or leave their relationships.

Male privilege, ownership and consent

For centuries, women have been goods and chattels for men, their position enforceable by violence. Within marriage, men could do whatever they chose ­ after all, women partners were their property. Our laws still reflect and protect this basic position to this day. Men’s right to use violence against women deemed ‘theirs’ (wives and daughters), and men’s sexual privilege have been assumed and enshrined in all laws that relate to women’s safety, body autonomy, and relationship choice.

Until very recently – 30 years ago – in Australia, men could still be violent towards their partner and rape them with impunity. Divorce was inconceivable — even if he beat her senseless. Consent was seen as irrelevant once a woman married. Women couldn’t leave a marriage without fault-finding under the law until 1985. From this date, irreconcilable differences and incompatibility were seen as sufficient reason to break up. This tells me (and ludicrous) that until then, such a fundamental aspect was dismissed as not enough ground to justify breaking up a marriage!

Under such a burden of shame and blame, and in addition to the very real financial constraints on women being able to support themselves and children once they left, the stigma of being a divorcée was enough to dissuade many women from voting with their feet, even when they were being abused.

This persistent bias exists today:

  • In police reluctance to take domestic violence reports seriously,
  • in the courts’ unwillingness (still) to comprehensively deal with gendered violence of all kinds,
  • with our political leaders’ willingness to accept men’s sexual abuse of women, and
  • in the laws’ refusal to appropriately recognise the complexity of the issue of consent when there are power imbalances of size, age, gender, force, role, access to resources, and mental competency,

to name a few.

As a former first responder in sexual assault and child protection in the 1980s, I’m fascinated by the arguments against law reform over time. Arguments today about holding men accountable for gendered violence echo arguments from the 1980s and earlier against law reform about rape. Men’s sexual privilege and rights to act with impunity were (and still are) staunchly defended under headings of:

  • protection from vindictive women, and
  • the state not getting involved in private matters,

with a bit of added virtue signaling about protecting the institutions of marriage and the family (read: men’s entrenched privileges) [Women’s history network, 2016]. Women were and are still acceptable collateral damage.

Religion contributes to the historical entrapment of women in marital servitude

In Christian teachings, men are seen as having rights over women, where women must obey them. This religious dogma significantly influenced the drafting of certain legislation. This is despite the fact we are supposed to be a secular state.

A direct result of such influence is that men could legally rape their wives with impunity until 1991 when rape in marriage became illegal. In this context, women couldn’t flatly refuse to have sex with a spouse. They could only delay. If a woman held out on having sex with her husband – in other words, if she attempted to claim bodily autonomy over her own body – this was repackaged by opponents of law reform as the ‘vindictive wife’. Up until 1975, Courts in Australia had the power to force the restitution of conjugal rights, or marital duties (read: force women to have sex with their spouses).

As we see the growing infiltration of a particular brand of Christianity in our politics, this raises concerns for the return of repressive constraints on women’s autonomy in every sphere of life. And we see this attempt to reframe men as victims in the arguments repeated in the media right now pushing back against Australia’s own #metoo movement.

Domestic violence reform

In Australia, domestic violence was first openly discussed in the 1970s. This change came about with the women’s movement bringing the public’s attention first to the issue of child abuse, then domestic violence, and lobbying for funding for the first women’s refuges. Legislative change was slower to come into being.

Domestic violence laws with enforceable AVOs came into force from 1982. Prior to that, men’s violence against women and children was ignored, permissible, and treated as a domestic matter between spouses. In terms of how authorities respond to this day, there’s frequent evidence that it’s still treated as a private matter, rather than what it actually is—gendered domestic terrorism.

Currently, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner, and approximately one in four women experience violence from an intimate partner, compared to one in 13 men. Nothing is being done to really grapple with this issue and treat it with the seriousness it deserves. This is something I believe directly flows from our society maintaining patriarchal structures that privilege men over women and treat women as goods and chattels.

No means of financial support, no option to leave

We can see how, until very recently, women’s options to exert autonomy over every aspect of their lives were hampered by-laws, employment and credit processes, and societal expectations.

Legislation about equal pay for equal work only came into being in 1975. Today, the gender pay gap still stands at 14%.

Women had to leave jobs if they got pregnant until the late 1960s. Married women could not work in the Commonwealth public service before 1966. As a major employer in Australia, that’s a huge opportunity closed to women to earn a secure living and provide for their children. It was assumed women would not be able to both deliver on paid work and raise children. The patriarchy opted to enforce unpaid domestic and child-rearing roles for women which shored up men’s privileges, trapped women, and enabled profit on the back of women’s unpaid labour. It was not until 1971 that banks granted women loans without needing a male guarantor. Prior to that, banks assumed women would not need access to loans and would be unable to service the debt. Further, banks imposed unfair loan terms on the basis of potential pregnancy. And yet, women were still expected to be responsible for their separated spouse’s debt even if they didn’t stand to benefit. Effectively, women were stitched up into a disadvantaged, subservient, dependent role from which there was no escape.

Against all odds, women push to enter the workforce

Women’s participation in the workforce has almost doubled since 1961. It now stands at 59%, largely because more women today return to work shortly after giving birth.

The Supporting Parents benefit only came into being in the mid-1970s under a Labor Government. Until then, if a woman had no access to money of her own because she couldn’t engage in paid work, she did not have the financial means to choose to stay or leave a relationship. Without the capacity to earn money or the capacity to secure a loan, a woman couldn’t finance a viable alternative to staying where she was.

The child support scheme was set up in 1988 in response to the chronic failure of men who left their families to pay child support. Once the government stepped in with the supporting parents’ benefit, women had an alternative to remaining in abusive situations or living on the street and homelessness.

Body autonomy – fertility and reproductive coercion

Body autonomy and consent – as in the right to decide what happens to one’s body – is still hotly contested today… when it comes to women and women’s bodies, that is. Body autonomy is such a given right for men; it is not even considered an issue worthy of discussion —unless a man is incarcerated. There’s little to no discussion about men’s right to determine what they do with their bodies when it comes to sex or reproduction.

When something is assumed as a given, it doesn’t get discussed. What doesn’t get talked about doesn’t get challenged. We have seen the Liberal National Party use this tactic over and over to block any moves towards accountability or reform in Parliament over the last few years, making a mockery of the democratic system. Without the possibility for critical reflection, there’s no option for change. And the status quo continues. 

To me, the furore over women’s body autonomy reflects how men’s unquestioned rights, and their unquestioned sexual privilege to access and control women’s bodies at will, have been threatened.

Women started to control their own fertility in 1961 when reliable contraception in the form of the pill came on the market. Prior to that, without access to reliable, affordable contraception, women weren’t in a position to control their fertility and, thus, were often forced to remain in relationships they didn’t want or that was bad for them.

At the individual level, reproductive coercion occurs when a woman’s partner controls access to birth control, sabotages birth control, or tries to control the outcome of pregnancy. It has existed for centuries. The saying, ‘Keep them in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant’ reflects a basic tenet of patriarchy and how it perpetuates sexist gender roles and inequality. Women in abusive relationships are at higher risk of reproductive coercion and unintended pregnancies.

At a societal level, reproductive coercion occurs when governments:

  • restrict or stop funding family planning groups (making contraception harder to access),
  • restrict or stop funding sex education in schools, and
  • restrict or criminalise abortion.

As recently as October 2019, abortion was still a criminal offence in New South Wales. It was only decriminalised in South Australia in March 2021. These changes only occurred after massive lobbying by women and activists. And yet, in contrast, it’s not a criminal offence for a man to engage in ‘stealthing’—deliberately removing a condom during sex or sabotaging it beforehand when a woman has only consented to condom-protected sex. Men who clearly intend to try to entrap women into pregnancy get away with it because this practice is not seen as worthy of focus, as an attempt to enslave a woman.

Marriage as a trade

What do women want?

Basically, once women are really free to choose, they vote with their feet. If they feel safe, loved, met, and respected, they may elect to stay—as does any free person. When they don’t, more women choose the freedom and dignity of pursuing a life where they have sovereignty and autonomy over their choices about their safety, their body, their lives, how they want to be treated, and control of their own finances.

So, if women are no longer required to engage in marriage for financial reasons to try to secure their survival, and women have more autonomy than they ever have before, what are women looking for from relationships? What gives women a reason to form a relationship, and what gives them reasons to put in the emotional labour it takes to stay in one?

Over the past half-century or so, as we have seen, men’s and women’s roles in society have begun to change. In the process, I think that there’s been an increasingly widening gap between the genders that’s not really been talked about. Women have expanded their reach out into the world that was formerly largely closed to them — engaging in self-development through education, getting careers, getting into the workforce, earning and managing their own money. In contrast, men have not engaged in a corresponding way in self-development in the sphere of emotions and relationships, the sphere that had been relegated to women for centuries past.

Before continuing, I want to clarify — I don’t use terms usually applied to power dynamics such as superior/inferior. I find them offensive and simplistic. I use the following terminology/acronyms:

  • the person who holds greater power will be described as the POU, standing for ‘the person who is one-up’.
  • the person who holds less power, less money, decision making, physical safety, freedom in all forms, I shall describe as the POD, standing for ‘the person who is one-down’.

The power differential

When there’s a significant power differential between two people — slave/owner, worker/boss or, dependent wife/husband, the POD develops skills at ‘reading’ the POU, the person with more power. They have to. Only keen observation of the POU provides them with any capacity for predictability and a measure of influence over their fate and safety. The POU, on the other hand, has far less, if any, need to inform themselves about the inner workings and personal life of the POD around them. The privilege afforded to them by their position of power makes it unnecessary and even irrelevant for them to concern themselves in this way about the POD. The privileged role POUs occupy ensures that their interests will be served — first, always, and often exclusively.

So, PODs always know a whole lot more about what matters to POUs than the reverse.

In the absence of real power and the right to have their interests in the relationship given equal weight, the only real influence available to the POD is to use indirect means — trying to leverage interests, sensitivities, points of pride, ambitions, and playing to the kind of self-image the POU values. Flattery, selective feedback, lies, feigned opinion, indirect suggestions, and so-called manipulation all come into play.

I find it fascinating that a common claim about women is to portray them as manipulative – read indirect. When women have been, and still are, enslaved or severely limited in how they can exert autonomy over their own lives and bodies, what other options exist?

Who seeks help? Who doesn’t?

Up until now, women have done most of the emotional heavy lifting in relationships. As PODs, this was necessary. The trouble is, many women are still doing the emotional heavy lifting in their relationships, despite also being breadwinners in their own right.

Women are more likely to sign up to self-help groups and seminars, read and consume self-help materials, learn to improve their communication skills, and reflect on their relationships in their lives, and seek ways to make them better, more satisfying. This is a level of recognising and valuing the importance of relationships in life I just don’t hear from men to anywhere near the same degree.

In almost 40 years of practice in the personal growth field, the statistics remain pretty steady. Women comprise the bulk of those who seek therapy. In my practice, about 80% of new clients are women, and about the same proportion engage in ongoing therapy.

When they reach out for help, many of these women present with issues of depression, trauma and anxiety which have arisen out of the relationship context that these women grew up in and currently live in. When I offer to see them as part of a couple, they often tell me their partners won’t attend as their partner doesn’t believe they have anything to do with their partner’s distress. In effect, the men tell their women partners, ‘It’s your problem, you sort it out’.

In my view, once issues of safety, body autonomy, and economic freedom are secured, women leave relationships that aren’t working for two reasons. Firstly, men do not take ownership of the fact they need to learn emotional and relationship skills. And secondly, they need to address their assumption and exercise of privilege over women and women’s bodies, as well as their assumptions of privilege in the domestic sphere.

I see men expecting to continue to have privileged access to and over women and women’s bodies, to have women take care of their emotional needs without reciprocity, and to continue to have unpaid domestic labour, and have women do the bulk of the work involved in raising children, while they (men) continue to put their main focus outside the family unit— on the world, on their careers, work, and interests.

Every week, research shows that the burden of running a household and raising children is not shared fairly between partners in most heterosexual relationships, even when both parties engage in paid work! Women tell me that the inherent unfairness in workload, on top of the lack of emotional connection and support, is why they are reconsidering their choices.

Without doing some serious emotional heavy lifting in self-reflection, such men are just not offering enough to interest women who can exercise economic emancipation into staying in long-term stable bonds with them.

The longevity key

John Gottman has been researching what makes marriages/committed relationships last for over 35 years. He and his team have established beyond a doubt that longevity of relationship is not a marker of success in and of itself. This becomes blatantly clear once women gain economic independence, and legal protection, and have other options to stay in unsatisfying or even abusive relationships.

Gottman, Tatkin, and a raft of other couple therapists and researchers have gradually put forward some very clear pointers about what is appealing to women when it comes to the hard work of committed relationships.

Gottman found the number one predictor of marital happiness was a man’s willingness to be influenced by his partner.

Taking from this, I propose that the kind of partnering that produces long-term happy couples (I call them the Long-Term Happies, or LTHs) hinges largely on men’s willingness to educate themselves about the crucial importance of other people’s emotional needs in their family/relationship group and how they manage these. It also hinges on their willingness and ability to address privilege and inequality, to be willing to give up their privileges where they exist at the expense of others, and to do the work it takes to build secure relationships where both parties’ needs and wishes are met.

This requires men to confront the unfair privilege they have, to relinquish this privilege and share the load, both practically and emotionally. In addition to learning to share household and child-rearing tasks fairly, they need to challenge themselves to learn how to form intimate bonds with partners based on fairness, respect, and equality and be available as emotional partners by learning how to be value, explore and be open about their inner lives and be vulnerable, and learning how to relate to a partner who also reveals their inner workings and vulnerabilities.

For their part, women need to unlearn centuries of being conditioned to think like slaves. They need to act like the emancipated beings they are — to learn to claim their right to have choice, to be treated with respect, fairness and equality. They need to learn to stand up for equality emotionally and practically, if that’s what they want, and to be robust enough to hold onto their resolve when dealing with push-back. And they need to give themselves permission to leave if things don’t change.

True partnership

Increasingly, women want true partnership. They want to be known deeply, and they want a partner who is also willing to be known deeply. By being known deeply, I mean each person is willing to reveal themselves to the other as they are, warts and all, with as little editing as possible. True partnership holds each person’s interests and needs in mind and attends to them. Decisions are made that are good for both partners, not just one person. Both parties turn to each other in good times and bad, knowing the other wants to and will be there for them. True partnership is based on principles of fairness, justice and equality. There is neither a POU not a POD—there is real equality.

After working to try to change their relational context single-handedly, if things still don’t change, that’s when I hear women’s priority changes too. They initially come to ‘fix’ things. They then shift to a ‘training for leaving’ contract because they can.

As always, change is not linear or easy. Along with the changes outlined above, there are serious pressures to return to the old ways. Our secular political sphere is currently under siege, and to my mind, unduly influenced by alt-right/religious-right interests which are laden with and push for a reinstating of patriarchal values, patriarchal privileges, and a rollback on  autonomy for women.

We need to address this issue head-on — privilege at the expense of others is fundamentally wrong. The alt-right try to glorify marital servitude (to wit, some women’s vociferous embracing of the so-called trad wife role). The reality of marital servitude is that it impoverishes everyone’s life — men’s as well as women’s. A slave is not free to truly choose and connect deeply with their ‘owner’.

If men want to experience being chosen, then they need to risk not being chosen. They need to be willing to be known deeply and get to know their partner deeply. That’s going to mean some emotional heavy lifting involving reflection; seeking, considering, and acting on challenging feedback; being willing to divest themselves of unfair privilege; and learning emotional and relationship skills. That means learning to treat women as their true and full equal.

If women want the dignity of choice and intimacy, they need to be free to leave, expect nothing less than equality in relationship, and be willing to settle for nothing less. They, too, need to be willing to be known deeply – with all the vulnerability this entails. This will require shedding years of being trained to see and treat men as man-children who cannot take care of themselves and need to be taken care of in the domestic sphere; years of conditioning to influence men and work indirectly, rather than communicate needs directly; years of being raised to value pleasing and serving others over being robust enough to set boundaries and stand one’s ground; years of putting others’ needs and wishes first, and learning to be robust enough to withstand being seen as selfish and being pressured to give way when asking for something for themselves that does not put others first. .

If enough men and women see that everybody benefits from creating a fairer society for all, then we can build satisfying lasting relationships for all who choose to be in them. We also stand a chance in addressing the urgent planetary issues that we face around climate change, environmental degradation, world poverty and inequality.

If you think it’s time to address inequality and privilege in your relationship, and you think you could use some help, call me.

[i] By ‘People’, I am using a non-gendered term to mean men, women, and nonbinary folks.