In the year following a divorce, women’s living standards fall by 27 percent while men’s living standards rise by 10 percent. So says a widely quoted study by the Social Science Research Council. Feminist groups have leapt to the conclusion that divorce laws are unfair to women. When I first saw the numbers, I leapt to a different conclusion: Marriage is unfair to men. After all, a man who stays married is forced to sacrifice 10 percent of what he could achieve on his own.
On reflection, I think both I and the feminists ought to have looked at a little economics before we leapt. Both they and I had forgotten that prices indicate value. If men stay in marriages that cost them a lot of money, that just proves they really like being married. They’re getting something they value, and they’re paying for it. Nothing unfair about that.
One could make a similar argument about women: A woman who takes a big financial hit to get divorced must really hate being married, so the conclusion is that marriage makes women unhappy. That argument is weak because not all divorces are voluntary on the woman’s part. But here’s a much stronger argument: Married men, in effect, pay their wives to stick around (by acquiescing to a lifestyle where the wife gets to consume more than she could earn on her own). Why would you pay a woman to stay married unless you were pretty sure she considered marriage unpleasant?
Take an example. Mrs. Smith, if divorced, could spend, say, $20,000 a year. Mr. Smith agrees to let her spend $25,000 a year, even though he himself is living below the standard he could achieve on his own. Why would he agree to that? It’s got to be because a) he likes having Mrs. Smith around; and b) he believes Mrs. Smith would leave him without the $5,000 premium. So what the statistics tell us is not that divorce is unfair to women and not that marriage is unfair to men, but that men enjoy being married and women don’t.
Of course there are myriad exceptions to those rules, just as there are myriad exceptions to the rule that a newly divorced woman’s living standard goes down by 27 percent. That figure is a broad average, and the conclusions to be drawn from such figures should be interpreted in a similar spirit. The moral is not that every man prefers marriage and every woman prefers divorce, but that by some appropriate measure, marriage is on average good for men and bad for women. That’s why men pay to stay married and women pay to get divorced.
Moreover, there’s a good reason, rooted in both economics and biology, why we should have expected this conclusion all along. A 30-year-old woman who wants a family is getting close to the point where she has to choose the best of her available suitors. A 30-year-old man can always choose to wait another five or 10 years till someone better comes along. In general, the longer you spend searching for something—be it a car, a house, or a life partner—the happier you’re going to be with the one you end up with. So—again, with myriad exceptions—a woman’s optimal strategy is to settle for an imperfect mate and then try to change him. A man’s optimal strategy is to search until he finds someone close to perfect. It’s therefore no surprise that women, more often than men, should end up regretting their choices.
In hindsight, it all makes sense. Once you realize there’s a biological clock, you should be able to predict that men (having searched long and hard for the perfect partner) would make financial sacrifices to preserve their marriages, and that women who stay married to imperfect partners would be kept in their marriages by financial rewards—or, to say the same thing another way, that women who leave their marriages would make financial sacrifices. (And you should also be able to make a lot of auxiliary predictions, such as this one: Wives try harder to mold their husbands than husbands try to mold their wives—because husbands wait until they’ve found wives who need relatively little molding.) Fairness never had anything to do with it.