Each unhappy couple is unhappy in its own way—but at least part of that unhappiness may be related to women’s professional success.
A new study by Swedish researchers found that women who begin their marriage either earning less than their husband or not working at all, are significantly more likely to get divorced if their career suddenly surges.
The 2018 white paper, by Uppsala University political scientist Olle Folke and Stockholm University economist Johanna Rickne, is based “on 30 years of detailed Swedish register data that follows job candidates before and after promotions,” the authors write. While most of the analysis relates to jobs in the public sector—mayors and parliamentarians—the researchers also look at women who are promoted to CEO roles at private companies.
In the public sector, Folke and Rickne compared divorce rates among women who won elections and women who lost them. After three years on the new job, a woman who got the top job was seven percentage points less likely to remain married to her spouse compared to the woman who ran for office but lost—effectively doubling her baseline divorce probability (the existing odds her marriage won’t work out, based on demographic factors like age and education level).
On the other hand, whether a man won or lost an election had no effect on his marriage.
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In the private sector, women who were married at the time of their promotion to CEO—researchers looked specifically at private companies with 100 or more employees—were twice as likely to have gotten divorced three years after their promotion compared to their male counterparts.
A woman’s career success only impacts couples that are “gender traditional” in the early stages of her career—meaning that the woman’s career takes a backseat to her husband’s. The researchers made that determination based on what percentage of the couple’s total parental leave was taken by the wife. (In Sweden, couples can “share” 480 days of parental leave after the birth of a child.) If a woman took 80% or more of the couple’s leave, she was considered by researchers to be part of a “gender traditional” couple. Four out of five women in the sample fell into this category.
By contrast, the couples in which both partners’ careers were of equal importance from the beginning of their marriage did not experience the same elevated odds of divorce.
The researchers offer three hypotheses to explain what’s happening: 1) A wife’s promotion is more unexpected in a couple that prioritizes the husband’s career 2) Her promotion causes more stress from task renegotiations in “unequal relationships” or 3) Women leave relationships that offer the least flexibility and support for her career development.