Caregiver Turned Breadwinner

Why is there a continued correlation between women’s employment and marital dissolution?

Feb 11, 2018

women Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel

“There is a situation where a single woman got employed. She then got married. Her husband, however, had a lower salary than herself, and this caused disagreements between the two... This employment affected this woman because she would say: My salary is higher than yours. She believes she does not need him, and she can go back to her family home with no problem. This would [have been] a lot different if she were to [have been] unemployed,” the Acting Head of Lawsuit Preparation, Litigation Division and Electronic Filing in the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department told me last January.

There is widespread sociological research about the relationship between female labor force participation and marital instability. The famous women's economic independence hypothesis, states that women's increased economic independence augments the likelihood of divorce because the gains from marriage are reduced. A more recent theory claims that this causal relationship could be the other way around; women may increase their labor supply in the anticipation of a divorce. Evidence from a time expenditure study, moreover, reveals that among various different measures of a wife’s earnings, hours worked among employed women has the greatest impact on marital dissolution. This is strongest for middle-income households and families where the husband disapproves of his wife's employment. But why is there a continued correlation between women’s employment and marital dissolution?

For centuries, women were the primary caregivers for their children and men were the primary breadwinners of the household. However, this situation does not hold as true as it did in the past. There is a clear gender shift as more women are entering the labor market. Work and child rearing tasks prior to industrialization could be performed simultaneously but as industrialization began to proceed, economically productive work and childcare became increasingly incompatible. Work sites today are usually some distance away from home, and work schedeules employers set lack the flexibility required by children.

The critical distinction between wives who remain married and wives who divorce seems to be some combination of elements associated with the wife’s employment outside of the home. The time spent by the wife outside of the home working impedes the completion of tasks necessary to maintain the household. Furthermore, in addition to structural processes, the wife’s employment sets in motion a number of psychological processes, such as the husband’s perceived status loss.

When the caregiver and breadwinner roles are being violated, the chances of divorce increase. While sex differences in job tenure, wages,and work hours are in themselves adequate to fully account for observed sex differences in workplace-residence separation, sex differences in household roles are of greater importance in prompting women to work closer to the home. Still, the effect of the wife's work on divorce has diminished over time while the effect of the husband's contribution to domestic work on divorce has amplified. Thus, when domestic roles are being violated, regardless of whether it is the women or the man who is responsible for the violation, divorce is still likely to occur.

Moving away from marital satisfaction to job satisfaction, which could translate to the household, women who thought their job offered flexible working hours reported higher levels of job satisfaction and organizational commitment than women who did not. This is clear with those who have family responsibilities. Women are happier as they are able to tend to household duties, resulting in a decreased likelihood of a divorce occurring.

An interesting question to pose is why is it that when men work, the likelihood of divorce may not increase? Is it solely because of the fact that we accept the traditional breadwinner-caregiver dynamic? This is indirectly answered in a study stating that, in some cases, “'if the earnings ratio of a couple is less than one-half … the marital bond is stronger if only one or if neither spouse is employed full time.''

It has not been clearly specified which spouse is the employed one but in other pieces of literature, it has been argued that when the breadwinner role is being violated, marital dissolution is likely to occur. We can assume, then, that the marital bond is stronger when the woman is unemployed, or employed, but part-time.

We could also ask whether or not women’s employment is not an issue when men are busy, but is a problem when women are busy and men are not? Men’s breadwinning is still so culturally mandated, that when it is absent, both women and men are unfortunately likely to find that the marital partnership doesn’t deserve to continue.

Mahra Al Suwaidi is contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]

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