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The link between divorce and men who help around the house

Divorce rates are lower in families where husbands help more with housework, shopping and childcare, according to new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

A study of 3,500 British married couples after the birth of their first child found that the more husbands helped, the lower the incidence of divorce.

The research, Men's Unpaid Work and Divorce: Reassessing Specialisation and Trade, was carried out by Wendy Sigle-Rushton, one of several UK academics comprising the Gender Equality Network (GeNet), part of the Economic and Social Research Council's (ESRC) Priority Network Programme.  Findings are published in the latest edition of Feminist Economics.

It explodes the theory that marriages are most stable when men focus on paid work and women are responsible for housework, showing instead that fathers' contribution to housework and childcare stabilises marriage, regardless of mothers' employment status.

Economists have long argued that rising divorce rates, which began in the early 1960s, are linked with steady increases in the numbers of married women working, because marriages in which men take responsibility for paid work and women remain in the home make both spouses better off.

Dr Sigle-Rushton, senior lecturer in social policy at LSE and research associate at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion, said:

"Economists have spent a good deal of time examining and trying to explain the positive association between female employment and divorce. However, in doing so, they have paid very little attention to the behaviour of men. This research addresses that oversight and suggests that fathers' contribution to unpaid work at home stablises marriage regardless of mothers' employment status."

Dr Sigle-Rushton's research analysed data on married couples who had their first child in 1970, a time when most mothers of young children stayed at home. This data came from the British Cohort Study, a nationally representative study that followed the lives of 16,000 children born in one week in 1970.

Dr Sigle-Rushton focused on 3,500 couples who had stayed together for five years after the birth of their first child.  Around 20 per cent divorced by the time the child was 16. The fathers' participation in housework, shopping and childcare is measured in the number of tasks the father was reported, by the mother, to have done in the previous week.

Just over half of fathers, in 1975, were reported to have helped with none or one task (51%), 24 per cent carried out two tasks, and about one-quarter carried out three or four, the highest contribution.Nearly a third of mothers were employed, only five per cent of whom were working full time.

It found that, relative to families in which women are homemakers and men do little housework and childcare, the risk of divorce is 97% per cent higher when the mother works outside the home and her husband makes a minimal contribution to housework and childcare. However, there is no increased risk of divorce when the mother works and her husband's contribution to housework and childcare is at the highest level. The lowest-risk combination is one in which the mother does not work and the father engages in the highest level of housework and childcare.

Dr Sigle-Rushton said:

"The results suggest that the risk of divorce among working mothers, while greater, is substantially reduced when fathers contribute more to housework and childcare.

"That men's failure to contribute to housework can increase the risk of divorce may seem surprising, given that all of the families in my sample had fairly young children over the time period they are followed and a divorce would have had substantial economic consequences and would not have relieved most mothers of housework and childcare responsibilities."

Putting the research into a modern-day context, she added:

"The structure of the labour market, rates of female labour-market participation, rates of divorce, and expectations about men's and women's gender roles have all changed considerably since 1975.  But this study underscores the importance of taking into account relationships between's men's behaviour and marital stability. In economic and sociological research, there has been too great an emphasis on women's paid work and not enough attention given to the division of unpaid work."



To interview Dr Sigle-Rushton, please call 0207 955 7358 or email w.sigle-rushton@lse.ac.uk

For a copy of the report, please email j.m.bale@lse.ac.uk