Is Divorce the Only Answer to An Unequal Marriage?

I'll admit, I appreciate the simplicity

The most infuriating thing about the national conversation on domestic work, childcare and the pandemic is that it only seems to be women who are having it.

After all, the primary reason American women are disproportionately suffering—losing jobs and cutting back hours while juggling work, childcare, and elder care—is because they have male partners who won’t do their fair share at home. We’re in the middle of what might be the biggest economic disaster for women in decades, and the men who caused it are silent. 

How do we make them care? One seemingly-straightforward solution that’s been bandying about the internet is divorce: If you’re in an unequal marriage, leave. 

I’ll admit, I love the simplicity. But writer Emily Gould made an important point on Twitter: Isn’t that an individual solution to a systemic problem? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on issues like paid parental leave and subsidized child care? 

It’s true; telling women to leave their less-than-helpful husbands doesn’t address the structural hurdles families face. The problem, though, is that no legislation will make men want to do work they think is beneath them. 

Research shows that men’s views on women, childcare and domestic work are actually more regressive now than they were decades ago: While most American men support equality in other areas of women’s lives, nearly half still want a housewife. Even ‘progressive’ men don’t often live their politics at home. Policy alone can’t change that kind of widespread thinking.

In fact, family-friendly policies can even have the unintended consequence of reinforcing traditional gender roles. 

One study, for example, showed that male professors given paternity leave used the time to publish more papers instead of watching their children. As a result, their careers progressed faster than those of their female peers who used parental leave to...parent. Or consider that in Nordic countries—whose policies are pointed to as the gold standard—men aren’t nearly as likely as women to make use of paid parental leave, which often re-entrenches sexism at home.

This doesn’t mean we don’t fight for legislation—just that America needs a cultural shift that changes men’s hearts and minds alongside that policy progress. 

Take media coverage on women and the pandemic. Nearly every headline is some version of “Covid forces women out of the workforce,” rather than the much more simple and truthful "men’s refusal to equally parent rolls back women’s progress.” 

Imagine if instead of quotes from harried moms, we saw profiles of men trying to explain why their time and work is more valuable than their wives’. What if there were magazine covers framing this as a national scandal: Men across the country do nothing as the women they love lose jobs. 

We could start even earlier. High school health classes shouldn’t just be covering sex education, but how ingrained ideas about gender can prevent healthy relationships. Young men could learn early on that child care and housework is as much their responsibility as women’s—and how excuses to the contrary are rooted in sexism. Young women could be taught to expect an equal relationship, and how to identify signs that their future partner may not be looking for the same. 

And divorce? Instead of “just leave him”—which feels like yet another way to make men’s issues women’s problem—we could ensure that men get truthful messages about marriage. 

Right now, American culture paints marriage as something women are desperate for and men desperate to avoid. But studies show that women are more likely to initiate divorces than men, that women tend to be happier than men post-divorce, and that marriage benefits men more than it does women.

If men truly understood that their happiness is much more dependent on marriage than it is for women, perhaps they’d work harder to make sure their wives weren’t miserable. (Imagine sitcoms depicting wives leaving lazy husbands, or reality shows portraying single women as reluctant to give up their freedom.) 

All that said, of course women should leave husbands who aren’t good partners. I’m all for it. But while you’re signing those separation papers, let’s work towards a culture that shows men they have as much of a stake in this issue as we do.