I’m in the middle of writing my next book which is about how to make the best of the end of a relationship whether it is ending through divorce, separation or bereavement (they are more similar than you might think).
As you know, I’m divorced and I know lots of people who are also divorced. It’s only recently that I noticed a pattern that has been staring me in the face but I’ve been slow to see it.
I can count over 10 couples who have split up in the last 2 years and all of the splits have been initiated by women. Age isn’t a deciding factor, one friend is in her mid thirties and another was over 60 when she left her husband. But it is women who are doing the leaving.
(NB – I’d love to know what same sex couples make of this as what I’m about to say has a heterosexual bias.)
One possible reason is based on the theory that relationships are based on units of exchange. Whilst we are in balance or in credit, all is good in the world, when we feel short changed or over drawn, that’s when we bale out. In the early days of a relationship, each partner goes out of their way to please the other and in return is pleased themselves. We might take it in turns to pick up the bill for our night our, we dress up specially and make the time we spend together special.
Then as the relationship goes on we might not have the same ways of ‘paying in’ to the relationship, he might mow the lawn while you hang the washing up, but as long as there is equality, we are happy.
When we feel like we are paying more and the other person is paying in less, or taking out more, we become dissatisfied and begin to look for something better.
The theory itself isn’t gendered, but I would argue that the way we live is gendered, still. Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour ran a week of Chore Wars which discussed who does what around the house, who has the most time off, and who makes the decisions. There is an on-line quiz that you can do with your partner if you are brave enough.
- Who does most of the jobs in your house?
- How do you share money, chores, childcare, free time?
- Is your emotional bank account in credit?
- Is there anything you would like to do differently?
The findings seemed to be that although we like to think that we are a modern, egalitarian society, it is still women who carry the greatest domestic responsibility, even when they are working as much as or more than men. If this is the case, then no wonder women are feeling like they ‘pay more in’ and ‘get less out’.
Which links to another possible explanation for the women leading splits, and this time we’ll turn to evolution. If you take evolutionary theory then all breeding is to do with the survival of the fittest and the best way of ensuring survival of the offspring is not only providing good genes, but ensuring that the child can be cared for into adulthood. In human babies this requires that there is someone around who will supply resources for the child and the mother so they can survive and traditionally this will have been the man’s role.
I remember a friend’s mum telling me how she had put up with her husband’s infidelity, not because she was a wise and benevolent mother earth, but because she had 3 young children and he earned the money so she had no choice. Nowadays we are more likely to have a choice. When I think of all the women I know who have left their partners, they are all financially independent, they have a choice.
When my parents split up, divorce was still a shameful taboo. It is no longer seen the same way. Women leaving relationships know they can manage parenting on their own, that they can manage the house on their own and that they can pay their own way. They can be the carer as well as the hunter, nurturing and paying the bills.
I also think women make the break because of other women. Not because we encourage each other to divorce, but because we support each other emotionally much more than most men do. Research shows that men are much more likely to re-marry quickly or to fall into depression than women are.
- Who are the people you can talk to about anything in life, even your most personal thoughts and emotions?
- Can you talk to your partner in the same way?
- How can you develop intimacy in your relationships?
Women’s relationships are often as intimate emotionally as the relationships we have with our men. We confide in each other and support each other, we can give challenging feedback whilst still being unconditionally caring. This makes it much easier to leave a relationship as we maintain our need for emotional connection, company and hugs through our friends. Men are statistically much less likely to share their feelings with friends and colleagues and more likely to have their partner as their sole confidant.
We’re all living longer too. As one friend in her mid 40s said, ‘if I knew I only had another 10 years with him, I’d stay) but our life expectancy now means that when we are in our 40s we could reasonably have another 30 or 40 years ahead of us. So once we’ve had kids (if we’re having them) then we can move onto the next thing, there’s still so much life to live and we are no longer tied to our biological role.
Of course some couples don’t have kids. With same sex relationships becoming more open and contraception easy and reliable, children are no longer central to many relationships so there is no longer any need to stay together for the children.
For those of us who do want children, the man we marry to have children with, may not be the same man we want to grow old with. One friend talked about how she had been very sure that her ex would be a great father and provider and he was, and this in-spite of the divorce. She now can look for a partner she wants for this part of her life, and he doesn’t have to be a great father as she’s already had kids.
I am sure that we are all still much more swayed by our biology than we think, and for some women, the desire to reproduce is so strong that they select men on the basis of their willingness and ability to to reproduce rather thinking about how well they get on in 20 years time. Once the child-rearing years are on the wane, women, freed from the need (if they had it) for a provider, are free to move on, to find a new partner without the alarm bells of fertility ringing.
People are having kids later and later, and as we know, men can father children for most of their lives. Not so for us women and when that clock starts to tick, I’m sure many a mating is based on sperm availability rather than longevity. Some women, both gay and straight, bypass the need for an actual male entirely, by using sperm donors to produce much wanted children.
So is this all doom and gloom for men and for happy ever after?
Yes and No.
Yes doom, because we have to accept that for many people happy ever after will be for a finite time.
However, that does not have to be a bad thing. Relationships that last 20 years are surely a success when you consider how much we expect of our modern partners.
It isn’t doom that people now have more choice to be together or not. Fewer people have to live miserable lives with a partner they don’t like.
I also think there is a possibility for a ‘hooray’ in this new situation. Hooray for women as they can now, more than ever before control their lives, their bodies and their relationship.
Hooray for us all, men women, gay and straight. Hooray because more and more we are choosing to be with people, not because they cook for us or pay the bills, but because we like each other..and surely that has to be a good thing?