Why Many Women Stay Married When They Want A Divorce

In 1533, King Henry VIII of England wanted a divorce, so he broke it off with the Catherine of Aragon. For much of history, divorce has proved nearly impossible for those without a king's wealth and social capital — in other words, when it comes to ending toxic marriages, women have long been out of luck. In the U.S., no-fault divorce laws are relatively new. California was the first state to enable divorce regardless of wrongdoing in 1969, a decision then-governor Ronald Reagan eventually claimed he regretted, as per National Affairs. Believe it or not, it wasn't until 2010 that New York became the last state to do so — no longer did an injured party have to prove abuse or infidelity in court, falling out of love was enough (via JSTOR Daily).

Today, approximately 50% of marriages result in couples parting ways, per Wilkinson & Finkbeiner. For those entering their second and third marriages, the rate is substantially higher at 60% for second marriages and 73% for third, respectively. Despite the fact that divorce has become more common in the last century, many women will decide to stay in unhappy marriages rather than file for divorce. Why? As is the case with many complicated situations, it all comes down to money.

Divorce is expensive

Daycare is anything but cheap, totaling just over $14,000 a year for infants in the U.S. (via Illumine). It's often more cost-effective for one parent to stay home with the children — in heterosexual marriages, that responsibility usually falls to the mother. As she takes on the brunt of household labor, her partner can advance his professional career and income.

Although discussions of the gender pay gap have grown more common on social media and throughout major news publications, improvements have been minimal. According to The Pew Research Center, the average woman makes 82 cents for every dollar a man earns, which is up just 2% from 80% in 2002. On top of that, income inequality disproportionately affects women of color — Black women earn an average of 21% less than white women (via Forbes). Considering divorces can total in the tens of thousands, ending a marriage is understandably daunting when one member of the partnership lacks a financial safety net. As cited in The Atlantic, 27% of divorced and separated women live in poverty compared to approximately 9% of men. 

"Unless you're very fortunate, divorce can mean a reduction in your living circumstances, which just heaps more misery onto the already miserable process of ending a marriage," one divorcée shared with Refinery29, adding, "It's totally understandable that women would stay in an unhappy marriage to avoid all that."

Still, divorce is often the best option

From getting married after just a few weeks to spending boatloads on wedding expenses, marriages fail for a number of scientific reasons. However, compared to their male counterparts, divorced women are happier. "The differences between men and women's emotional experience of divorce is startling; women simply appear to be stronger than men throughout a break-up and afterwards," Rachel Court, head of mortgages at Yorkshire Building Society (YBS), explains to The Guardian. With a survey pool of 3,515 adults, YBS found that 46% of newly divorced women feel a sense of freedom post-breakup compared to 37% of men. Across the board, 57% of divorced adults are happier after ending their marriages.

After a separation, women are more likely to turn to therapy or a network of friends for support, finding meaning, and adventure in other aspects of life. Meanwhile, more men isolate, relying on vices, like alcohol or casual flings.

Prolonging a toxic marriage can result in bodily consequences, weakening the immune system and even putting your heart health in jeopardy, according to Healthline. Although switching up routines, equitably dividing housework, and seeking help from a couples counselor often prove fruitful, directing resources toward saving a marriage can feel just as daunting and financially draining as divorce. Whether you decide to work it out and save on divorce fees or go your separate ways, happy endings are never out of the question — all healing takes time, a good group of friends, and self-reflection.