Why do women initiate divorce more than men?

Originally written for the Telegraph UK:

Divorce: the popular misconception is that it’s all down to adulterous men

Whose fault is divorce? The cold statistical answer is: women.

Before the hate-mail barrage begins, let’s clarify that rather bald statement (and yes, I was partly just trying to get your attention). It’s undeniable that women request the great majority of divorces in the UK. The Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) most recent number crunch reveals that in 2011, the woman was the party granted (therefore initiating) the divorce in 66% of cases that year. It used to be an even higher share: 69% in 2001, and a whopping 72% at the start of the 1990s.

So what are the factors driving that female choice to divorce? The popular misconception is that it’s all down to adulterous men and their wandering penises. But you’d be wrong. Those same ONS stats break down the reasons for divorce, since there are only five legal justifications for ending marriage under UK law: adultery, unreasonable behavior, desertion, or separation (either with or without the consent of the spouse). Men and women are practically equal offenders in the infidelity stakes. In fact, slightly more men claim to have been cuckolded in court (15% of male-initiated divorces) than women (14%).

I’m not pretending for a moment that men are blameless. Those same ONS stats tell us that over half of female-granted divorces are down to their other half’s unreasonable behavior, which can be anything from unchecked boozing, physical abuse, wanton gambling, or that garden-variety mental cruelty you probably saw traces of at your last dinner party. Thank God women are ending those relationships.

On the other hand, it’s possible that women are more likely to initiate divorce than men because in the divorce court, especially where children are involved, the odds are in the female’s favour. Married men who get divorced are generally afraid of losing their kids, with good reason: over 80% of children of separated parents live exclusively or mainly with their mother. Men, often the higher earners, fear the crippling costs of a split. Women raising children and without much income can use taxpayer funds (through Legal Aid – for example) to fight a divorce, only paying the Crown back if they get a sufficiently large settlement. Not to sound crude, but this is like going to the Divorce Casino and playing with the house’s cash.

The UK’s divorce courts are so notorious for their supposed “wife-friendly” atmosphere that many men believe they would get a fairer hearing if their divorce proceedings were carried out elsewhere in the EU. . British courts can award ex-wives maintenance for life, while some European jurisdictions frequently limit post-marital support to only a handful of years. The potential lifetime supply of maintenance payments may make the stress and misery of divorce a high-reward gamble for British wives at the end of their tether.

Of course, only an idiot would say that divorce is all peaches and cream for women. The challenges facing ex-wives are daunting: single parenthood, re-entering the job market, recovering from the potential trauma of an abusive partner… the list is long, before you even get to financial matters. As one Cambridge University study observed, women see their per capita income drop by an average of 31% immediately following divorce (even if much of that income has been earned by her ex).

The aftermath of divorce is no picnic for men either. Yet it’s women who are more likely to take that drastic and frightening step into the unknown.

Here's another thought. Women often criticise men for their fear of commitment. Perhaps we are anxious to commit because it is more likely that our partners will eventually be the ones bailing out of this “lifelong” partnership, not us.

But then, in other respects, men often have themselves to blame. Perhaps the fact that women initiate more divorces has nothing to do with maintenance payments or custody of the children. Perhaps it’s simply a higher-stakes version of the typical male attitude to relationships. Many men will have thought to themselves, at least once in life: “I won’t break up with her, I’ll just be a complete tool until she ends it”. The divorce stats are perhaps just a reflection of the fact that men are cowards. Women are more likely to have the balls to call time on a failing relationship; men are more likely to simply wait to be told that it’s over.