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Household chores not the reason why many marriages split after all

When it comes to the risk of divorce, how a couple shares the housework has been under scrutiny. But another factor plays a big role.
/ Source: TODAY

A long-lasting marriage isn't about who does the chores.

Contrary to prior research suggesting couples who share chores are more likely to split, a new Harvard study points to a less controllable divorce risk factor for younger couples: whether the husband has a full-time job.

Image: Things I wish I’d known before my divorce
More couples are turning to collaborative divorces to avoid the cost and the pain of litigated divorces.Bacho / Shutterstock

Men who aren’t employed have a much higher risk of failed marriages than those who have jobs, according to the study published Thursday in the American Sociological Review. In fact, among men who lost their jobs, there was a 32 percent higher risk of divorce compared to those who were employed full-time, said the study’s author, Alexandra Killewald, a professor of sociology at Harvard University.

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That doesn’t mean stay-at-home dads face risky marriages: Those arrangements probably work because they are usually agreed upon between the husband and wife, Killewald told TODAY. However, there weren't enough stay-at-home dads in the study to answer the question definitively, she said.

The new research is based on data from 6,300 married couples who were interviewed between 1968 and 2013.

Related: 10 things I wish I'd known before getting divorced

Because so many marriage battles are fought over chores, two findings were notable:

  • Among couples who married before 1975, the risk of divorce went up when women did a smaller amount of housework.
  • Among the couples who married after 1975, only the husband’s employment status strongly affected the risk of divorce.

It's unclear why the husband’s job loss is so important when it comes to divorce.

“I could speculate that losing a job might bring with it depression or some other kinds of mental health issues,” Killewald said.

There is some suggestion in the data that among couples where both spouses work full time, divorce is less likely if the man shoulders more household chores. But that finding could be due to chance, she said.

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The link between a husband’s job loss and a higher risk of divorce doesn’t surprise Daniel Shaw, chair and professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.

“The study is interesting because it suggests that males are still expected to bring home the bacon to some extent,” says Shaw, who is unaffiliated with the new research.

What may be harming marriages is the impact job loss has on the husband himself, Shaw says. “I think men really don’t feel good about themselves,” he explains. “If you’re a man, you can lose your identity when you lose your job.”

The best response is to avoid sitting around and stewing over the situation.

“The best course may be to get a job of some kind or to go back to school as a pathway to getting back to work,” Shaw says. “Something to keep the guy busy.”