Why do women get divorced? Not all reasons are equal

Early in my life as a mother, I became friendly with another woman whose children were about the same age. We would meet for lunch occasionally with our 3- and 1-year-olds at a local child-friendly diner and commiserate about caring for toddlers. She was a literary agent with big ambitions, and I was a journalist with smaller ones.

Over time, her complaints turned quite sharp, and it was clear her marriage was suffering. Her husband was not helping at all with the children — never bathing them, for instance. Or rather, he was helping, but only in the ways that he and the kids enjoyed. Within a couple of years, she had filed for divorce. He bought a house down the block from her and everything was much better, she assured me. They had joint custody and she said it was now clear who was going to bathe the kids each night. When they were at his house, he would. When they were at her house, she would.

The arrangement made a certain kind of sense, if you don’t take the children’s feelings about the situation into account. And I have had other friends whose divorces — although precipitated by other factors — made it easier to negotiate the division of labor. But is that reason enough to get a divorce?

In a recent Washington Post piece, author Lyz Lenz suggests yes. In the essay, adapted from her new book “This American Ex-Wife: How I Ended my Marriage and Started My Life,” she writes:

“While women do more housework than their male partners, even when women are the primary earners, this work also goes largely unobserved by men, who statistically perceive themselves as doing equal work. Add the fact that husbands add hours of labor to a home — labor done by their wives — and it’s a bleak picture of domestic partnership.”

She adds: “Do you want to know how I finally got my husband to do his fair share? Court-ordered 50-50 custody, that’s how.”

Lenz doesn’t share much about her former husband, like why she wanted to marry him in the first place. But it’s clear that she feels marriage was restricting her ability to live her best life. She wanted to write a book at one point, but her husband wanted to have a third child. Maybe this poor man really is as dense as Lenz suggests. They were already in couples therapy by the time he suggested having another child.

But it’s also possible that her expectations were unrealistic. Splitting all responsibilities down the middle is hard. One parent always has to give — it doesn’t always have to be the mother. It usually is, however, in part because women generally want to work fewer hours outside the home than men, in part because they tend to want things done in a particular way and find their husbands don’t care as much, and in part because of societal expectations.

Lenz is particularly outraged about societal expectations — not just that women do more of the labor at home, but also that the government has tried to push people toward marriage. She cites politicians on both sides of the aisle who have noted that marriage “is the greatest tool to lift children out of poverty.”

She resents the fact that the government and society are “propping up marriage as a panacea while ignoring the systemic biases, including racism, that lead to poverty, and the fact that good outcomes for women and children arise from a complex mix of factors.”

The willful ignorance of evidence here about the benefits of marriage to children of all races and classes is incredible. Everything from poverty to high school graduation to likelihood of incarceration to drug use is affected by growing up in a two-parent married household.

But like so many commentators — especially the ones recently spouting the benefits of polyamory — there is no concern expressed about children here. Of course, children shouldn’t stay in homes where there is abuse going on. But your husband not appreciating your homemade lunches is not abuse. Nor are the other marital offenses that Lenz recounts.

Lenz dismisses concerns about the welfare of kids as part of the “children will suffer” refrain written about by Scott Coltrane and Gail Cornwall in a 2022 article in Slate. Guilty as charged; children often do suffer when their parents divorce.

To her, marriage is a form of privilege, heightened by racial disparity. “Keep in mind that even if people marry, it is hard to stay married when, for instance, the state is more likely to incarcerate Black women and Black men, and social services are more likely to get involved in their children’s lives.” This is how privileged white women broaden their complaints so it doesn’t seem like they are just writing about rich-people problems. But marriage benefits Black children just as much as it benefits white ones.

Ever since the sexual revolution, women — and women writers in particular — have argued that marriage is akin to bondage and that in order to achieve self-fulfillment, women need to break these chains. Inevitably, they return to some form of socialism as the answer. Lenz argues that we need to stop encouraging marriage and instead “create a more equitable society.” It is a little funny that a woman who can’t get her husband to bring home takeout for dinner believes women can get what they want if we simply remake America’s government and economy.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.