Bryan Caplan  

The Root Causes of Divorce: The Usual Suspects

Folk Songs... On the "to be read" list...

Reading Tim Harford's "Is Divorce Underrated?" in The Logic of Life got me wondering about the root causes of divorce. I want to create a list of "main" root causes, not partition logical space; at the same time, I want the categories to have some economic content, not just be a laundry list of bad things. Here's what I came up with:

1. Initial mismatch. Some divorces arise because they were a bad idea from the start. If people only stay married for six months, they were probably incompatible all along.

2. Emergent mismatch - or in plain English, "We grew apart." Some divorces arise because a marriage was a good idea for a while, but eventually ceased to be in the interests of either party.

3. Defection due to expected divergence in mate value. As evolutionary psychologists will tell you, female mate value peaks and starts to decline at a much earlier age than male mate value: It's a lot easier for a 45-year-old man to remarry than a 45-year-old woman. This creates a big incentive for men to promise lifetime fidelity, then jump ship.

4. Defection due to unexpected non-culpable divergence in mate value. Remember the part of the contract that says "for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health"? When one partner experiences an unexpected rise in mate value (e.g. one becomes a successful novelist) or experiences an unexpected fall (e.g. develops a horrible disease), one of the parties has a temptation to back out - and some do.

5. Punishment for clear-cut breach of contract. Adultery's the obvious example, but I'm sure you can think of more.

6. Punishment for unexpected and culpable decline in mate value - or in plain English, "You let yourself go!" The marriage contract may not explicitly say that you can't become a bum or morbidly obese or perpetually bitter. But you've heard about incomplete contracts, right? When one party falls far short of expected mate value due to deliberate action or inaction, divorce is not only likely, but easy for neutral outside observers to understand.

(Just to make a men's rights aside, it strikes me that people are a lot more forgiving when a women divorces her husband for becoming a bum than when a man divorces his wife for gaining a hundred pounds. When I see a man whose wife has let herself go, I often think "Poor guy - how could she do this to him?!")

Anyhoo, it's admittedly hard to catalog the reasons for divorce without passing judgment, so I might as well go ahead and pass it. (1) and (2) are hard to question if the couple has no minor children, and (5) and (6) hard to question at all. (I should add, though, that I also embrace the right of couples to make non-standard marriage contracts).

In any case, you can accept my list of root causes without making these normative judgments. Are there any big root causes of divorce that I'm missing? If so, let me know.

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The author at Continuous Productivity in a related article titled What Causes Divorce? writes:
    A nice synopsis of the root causes of divorce at EconLog. I found the following most interesting, but you should head over and check out the entire post:3. Defection due to expected divergence in mate value. As evolutionary psychologists will [Tracked on March 23, 2008 5:35 PM]
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KapKool writes:

Perhaps I'm being a bit pedantic, but I'm not sure that I can go along with any but 4 and 6 being a "root cause". I interpret "root cause" as being something exogenous to the mating model, but it seems to me that except for 4 and 6--which I take to be things that people are constrained from anticipating for some reason--all of these things arise endogenously given reasonable utility functions: 1,2, 3, and 5, taken as rates, are functions of the costliness of divorce because you invest less in getting along with your spouse and adhering to the contract when divorce is cheaper; as well, 3 ought to be determined by agents maximizing expected utility.

Looking at data elsewhere, it's true that the increase in divorce has been exaggerated, but I'd say the main reason for what we've seen is basically an income effect: as we've gotten wealthier, divorce is cheaper and cheaper (but not too marry at all is usually a better option).

Unit writes:

What about when something tragic happens that changes the dynamical equilibrium, e.g., the birth of a kid with down syndrome, or the death of a child, etc...(exogenous shock?)

Thomas writes:

What about a non-culpable case of "you let yourself go"? I'm thinking of the mate whose obesity arises from genetic inheritance, the likelihood of which wasn't evident to the other mate at marriage. Is that a 4 or a 6?

LemmusLemmus writes:

What about the obvious case when one spouse falls in love with someone else (which may be both exogenous or, at least partly, endogenous)? It's not quite the same as no. 2 and not necessarily the same as no. 3. I guess as an economist you'd want to call that something like "Increase in opportunity cost of maintaining marriage".

Dan Hill writes:

Did you run this by your wife... or is she too busy at the gym :-)

undergroundman writes:


That's more than just pedantic. It's a misguided application of models. You're presuming that we need to use a model to look at divorces and their causes, and that that model will comprise of these variables you describe. Yet divorce is a real phenomenon, not a model, and there's no reason to say that it has to comprise of 2 or 3 variables and that the only causes for divorce must be driven by variables outside of the model. That's just pure nonsense. A cause is a cause. Endogenous and exogenous are meaningless here because we're not looking at a model (at least, Kling didn't construct one, and you didn't either, just assumed one -- a model is an abstraction; it's a flawed representation of reality by definition).

Your assertion that divorce is caused by an "income effect" is similarly ridiculous. The rise of divorces correlates strongly with a decline in fertility. That, along with a more scrambled culture, and an emphasis on true love (because it's no longer just about having kids), have driven the divorce rates high. Study some sociology. The decline in fertility can be partly explained by an income effect, but more strongly explained by a rise in the cost of raising children.

ajb writes:

I would say a large background "cause" is changing societal expectations about what level of violations should make divorce acceptable. Fifty years ago, you could have provided the same list, but the trigger point for divorce -- especially divorce without severe disapprobation -- would have been set at much higher levels.

Coupled to this is the perception that individual contentment/fulfillment is to be valued over an imperfect marriage.

Steve Roth writes:

As with monetary policy and inflation, think expectations.

See Lori Gottlieb's recent Atlantic piece, in which she chastises women for constantly seeking "the one," their "true soulmate" and similar bunkum, rather than making reasonable judgments about whether someone will make for a reasonable, acceptable mate, warts and all.

Those unrealizable, romanticized expectations (driven strongly by Hollywood romantic comedies and pablum self-help books) are arguably the among the greatest drivers of the high divorce rate.

J Rosenbaum writes:

Women usually gain weight from motherhood: pregnancy and the sleep deprivation, stress, and time expenditure due to nursing and childcare. Children benefit both partners, but the risks accrue primarily to the woman.

KapKool writes:

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Nathan Smith writes:

All the reasons 1-6 seem to assume people are rational utility-maximizers. I wonder if that assumption is warranted. Might people just be stupid, succumbing to the "grass is greener on the other side" fallacy?

It's one thing to be rational in the context of the market, where one engages in new transactions every day and has the opportunity to learn from one's mistakes. In marriage, the guess-and-check strategy is much costlier.

Caliban Darklock writes:

With relationships in particular, people ARE utility-maximisers. Men attempt to date the best woman available, and as most men in the tech industry can attest, the "best available" to a geek in high school is rather different than the "best available" to a thirty-something engineer with a six-figure salary or a forty-something corporate VP with a net worth in the millions. While definitions of "best" differ, for men, they revolve around physical attributes, sexual utility, and the "other half" of maintaining the desirable elements of their lifestyle... not having to cook and clean and do their own laundry being foremost among those elements, for most young single men.

Women are somewhat more pragmatic, and tend to consider the "best available" on less shallow characteristics: earning potential, emotional stability, forward motion in one's career, the inestimable quality of "respect"... does he appreciate that I cook and clean and do his laundry?... but in the end, all the qualities that make one a "best available" mate have one thing in common.

They are unreliably predictable.

Men have sudden changes in situation that may leave them psychologically damaged and emotionally unstable, or incapable of retaining and increasing salary, or unwilling to continue following a career path. Women may encounter health issues that cause them to gain weight, or lose interest in the same level of sexual frequency and variety they displayed in youth, or just plain get old and "lose their looks".

It may be productive to view marriage as a form of insurance: it makes the process of changing mates more difficult and expensive. When you determine that your available options are unlikely to improve and, indeed, likely to decline... you get married, thereby staking your claim on the "best available" mate you've managed to acquire. This doesn't prevent the mate from leaving, but it does discourage the process.

As an economic transaction, you make the implied promise with that you will lose value at a similar rate to your mate's loss of value. If you do not make a good-faith effort to honor this commitment, it might be productively argued that you are in breach of contract.

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