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Divorce According to Plan

Who ends relationships most often—and why

A still from the 1973 Ingmar Bergman film ‘Scenes from a Marriage’

Citing data from Russia’s largest international sampling study, HSE demographers have shown that women are more likely than men to consider divorce and are more determined to end their marriage. They also found that young couples are more likely to be unhappy with their relationship. The report was prepared for the XXI April International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development at HSE University.

Second Thoughts about Marriage: from Intention to Action

The quality of relationships in the family, the length of the marriage, the age and education of the spouses and whether they have children—all of this undoubtedly affects whether a couple will stay together. Another significant factor exists, however: the intentions of the partners based on how they assess their marriage.

Based on the theory of planned behaviour—that links intentions with actions—researchers decided to determine how often dissatisfaction with the quality of the relationship and thoughts of divorce really break families apart.

People often act out scripts they have already imagined. Therefore, demographers apply the theory of planned behaviour when analyzing reproductive intentions and decisions (how many children the couple wanted and how many they ultimately had), behaviour within the marriage (the choice between an official and a common-law marriage, as well as living together, planning multiple marriages, etc.). 

Based on panel data from three waves of the survey ‘Parents and children, men and women in the family and society’ (PaCMaW, 2004, 2007 and 2011), Elena Churilova and Sergei Zakharov analyzed how often Russian family members had recently thought about separating from their partner and had ultimately done so.

‘We are interested in how well-founded statements are about the desire to break up,’ explained Churilova. ‘We looked at responses from people who have been in relationships for different lengths of time.’

A Woman’s Will: Twice the Determination

More than 3,000 respondents from different marriage cohorts (those who married in 1965-1979, the 1980s, 1990s, and in the early 2000s) were asked whether they had thought about divorce during the past year and whether they planned to separate from their spouse in the next three years.

The researchers also took the characteristics of the marriage into account — whether it was a first or second marriage and whether the spouses listed their marital status in their passports — the number of children and whether the couple lived in a city or village.

It turned out that women in relationships of widely varying durations were twice as likely as men were to think about the quality of the relationship. They were also more likely to make plans for separating — and to follow through on those intentions.

The oldest cohort of married couples tied the knot anywhere from 25 to 39 years ago, between 1965 and 1979. Although the procedure for divorce became simpler in 1965, only 15% of the women and 7% of the men in these solidly grounded relationships had thought about divorce in the past year.

That is, twice as many women had thought about divorce.

This ratio held true for all other cohorts of married couples as well, and the younger the couples, the more they had thought about separating. Among those married in the early 2000s, 27%, or more than one-fourth of the women and 14% of the men had thought about divorce.

The share of men and women who had thought about separating with their partner during the past year, according to marriage cohorts

Source: Research by E.V. Churilova and S.V. Zakharov.

A Period of Mutual Adaptation

There is a purely psychological explanation for why people who married in the early 2000s are more critical of their marriages: they were just starting their lives together at the time when the study was conducted.

At that stage, said Elena Churilova, couples are working out their lives together, assigning responsibilities, and clarifying their views on various aspects of the relationship. The percentage of those who think about breaking up is usually higher during this period.

‘In a conflict situation, the question arises: “Is this a suitable partner for me? Am I comfortable living with him (or her)? Do we share the same views regarding who does what around the house, the desirable number of children, how often we should visit the parents?’” said the researcher. ‘And, of course, cohabitation is more common among couples that got together in the early 2000s, and it easier for them to split.’

Is the Family Unshakeable?

Even people who have been married for a long time might eventually conclude that the marriage is unsuitable.

'There is a phenomenon of so-called "grey divorce" that is observed in, for example, the United States and Japan,' said Churilova. ‘The spouses have lived together for a long time, and after the children have grown and left home, it turns out that the husband and wife no longer have common interests, so they decide to divorce.’

However, the demographers feel that this does not indicate a devaluation of the family unit. ‘According to all surveys, Russians continue to value the family highly,’ the researcher said.

‘At the same time, almost one-half of our fellow citizens feel that divorce is acceptable when a couple faces insurmountable differences,’ Churilova said. ‘People understand that there is not much point in remaining in an unhappy marriage.’

Men: the Older the Marriage, the Stronger It Is

Men are typically less likely to question their marriage, and those who became husbands in the 1980s and 1990s thought about breaking up with nearly equal frequency.

Interestingly, as many as one-third of the men and women who got together in the early 2000s said they had plans to break up with their partner sometime in the next three years.

Older men form a different picture. Of those who have been married more than 15 years, only 6% had considered separating (as a subset of those who had considered breaking up), and of those who have been married from five to 14 years, that figure was 14%.

Women are more inclined to divorce. Of those who had married between 1965 and 1979, one-fourth of those who had considered breaking up with their partner had plans to do so, whereas one-third of those born in the 1980s and 1990s entertained such thoughts.

The Facts of Divorce

Statistics and sample studies, including those from the Soviet era, show that among women born in 1945-1979, one in three went through a divorce or separation from a common-law husband.

The marriage cohort of 1945-1954, however, married at a time when obtaining a divorce was more difficult. As a result, by the 30th year of marriage, only 14% of women in this group were divorced.

‘Back when they had only just married, it was very difficult to divorce,’ explains Elena Churilova. ‘And after 10 or 20 years of life together, children had already appeared and it seemed more difficult to make the decision to separate. In addition, there was no freedom on the housing market and there were still few people around who had experience with divorce,’ she said.

In the marriage cohort of 1955-1964, almost twice as many women are divorced: 22%. And that number is approximately 30% in the cohort of the 1970s and 1980s.

Among those who married in the 1990s, 30% separated within 15 years.

Unregistered unions break up twice as often, and as much as 50-60% of the time for those who began living together in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

A Country of Divorcees

Russian has the highest divorce rate (the number of divorces per 1,000 people) among the world’s industrialized countries. That figure stands at 4.2 divorces per 1,000 people, as compared to 3.4 in Belarus, 3.2 in the U.S., 3.1 in Latvia, and 3.0 in Ukraine. This indicator is significantly lower among all other countries in this group.

Russia’s divorce rate grew from 3.8 per 1,000 people in 1990 to a high of 6.0 in 2002 before dipping to 4.2 in 2017.

If to measure separations against the total divorce rate (showing the total number of marriages that ended in divorce), that figure stood at 0.58 per marriage in 2011-2014 and 0.52 in 2015-2017.

If the current high divorce rate remains unchanged, more than one-half of all marriages concluded in recent years will fail.

Russia’s total divorce rate rivals that of other world ‘leaders’ whose rates are also 0.5 and higher. These include Sweden, the U.S., the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and the United Kingdom.

The Demographics of Divorce

Marriages currently last for an average of from 9.5 to 10.5 years, although that number is falling.

Men who divorce are usually older than women who do (the latter marry earlier). At the same time, people are divorcing at an older age now.

According to Russia’s State Statistics Service, the average age of men who divorce rose from 37.8 years in 1970 to 39.7 in 2011. In 2018, that figure was essentially unchanged: 39.6.

 The average age of women who divorce rose from 33.6 years to 35.7 in the early 2010s before falling slightly to 35.3 in 2018.

 These changes stem from the fact that people are marrying at an older age.

Couples have an average of 1.2 children when they divorce.

The reasons for divorcing vary widely — from infidelity to intolerance and religious differences.

According to VTsIOM, Russians consider poverty, infidelity, and misunderstandings between spouses (46%, 22%, and 21% respectively) as the main reasons for divorce.

How (not) to Save a Marriage

In one study, people planning to divorce were asked what could stop them from taking that step. The top five responses included such answers as ‘eliminating the reason for the split (apparently indicating a wide range of causes such as infidelity, deception, etc.), ‘feelings of love for each other,’ ‘nothing,’ ‘having children together,’ and ‘material considerations.’

Respondents were also asked what they felt could make a marriage stable. They named such factors as mutual love and respect, fidelity, mutual support, common interests, responsibility towards the family and mutual tolerance.

In 1990, 29% of Russian respondents said that nothing could change their minds if they were to decide to divorce, and by 2019, that number had grown to 36%.

At the same time, circumstances posing an obstacle to divorce gained importance over this period: the inability to ‘share’ the couple’s children (34% in 2019 as compared to 25% in 1990) and the financial dependence of one of the spouses (25% versus 7% for the same period).

From Motivation to Resolution

In many ways, intentions and truth are predictors of future actions. Women who have resolved to break up with their husbands actually obtained divorces 3.4 times more often than those who had never considered breaking up, note Churilova and Zakharov.

Even respondents who had only thought about divorcing but had no firm intentions to do so were 1.8 times more likely to end their relationship with their husband. Those who lived in the city and had no children divorced more often.

Men opt to divorce less frequently than women do. At the same time, male respondents who had planned to divorce their wives did so 2.4 times more often than those without such plans.

The number of previous marriages and the type of living arrangement were also contributing factors for men. ‘Men are more likely to leave an unsuitable live-in partner than one to whom they are married,’ the demographers pointed out, ‘but they will end a second marriage only half as often as a first.’

Higher Expectations = Deeper Divides

Thus, women are more likely than men to think about ending their marriage and are more resolute about divorcing.

‘It is logical to assume that women expect greater quality in their relationships than men do,’ the researchers concluded.

Women also more clearly and openly express their dissatisfaction with any discrepancy between the reality of the marriage and their expectation of it.

On average, women were less satisfied with their marriage—judging from their responses to questions about relationship satisfaction and the frequency of conflicts. ‘They believe that conflicts occur in the family more often than we see in the responses of men,’ the authors said.

This attitude affects behaviour, raising the risk of a break-up and, ultimately, divorce, the researchers concluded.



Study authors:
Elena Churilova, Research Fellow, International Laboratory for Population and Health
Sergei Zakharov, Deputy Director, Institute of Demography
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, April 02, 2020