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Here’s Why Winning an Election Might Destroy Your Marriage—If You’re a Woman

Marina Adshade
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

Finally, an economics paper that has something for everyone! Do you think female empowerment is destroying the American family? Then this paper is for you. Or that the fragile male ego is what’s preventing women from saving the world? Also, for you!

What’s this story filling the fringes with delight? All the Single Ladies: Job Promotions and the Durability of Marriage, published in the American Economic Journal, provides evidence that women who move into a position of authority while married are more likely to divorce than not only men who do so, but also than women who try and fail. This effect, the authors argue, is discouraging women from running for public office. 

Democrats Say They’ll Support a Woman for President. Here’s How We Know They’re Lying.

Researchers in Sweden matched data from both municipal and national elections from 1991 to 2010 with data on the marital status of both winners and losers. They find that in the years following an election, women who win tend to divorce at twice the rate of women who lose their race. If we look at the share who are still married, this translates into a seven percentage-point gap between winners and losers after just three years and a 10 percentage-point gap after six years.

Among men who run in elections, there is no difference in the likelihood of remaining married between those who won and those who lost. 

Two things to be considered here. The first is that this result is not about public image. Caring about the marital status of an elected official is very much an American phenomenon. In many other countries—Sweden included—there is little consternation about who shares their political leader’s bed and a divorce is unlikely to be covered in any media. In that respect, this data is probably a better measure of marital happiness than would a similar study using U.S. elections, where divorce might be seen as a personal failing. 

The second is that this result has nothing to do with money. The overwhelming majority of winners in these elections earn less after becoming a parliamentarian or a mayor. The story here is not that women become financially independent and leave, nor is this evidence that men can’t handle being married to women who outearn them. 

If not money, then why are women’s relationships more likely to end when their careers succeed?

There is an economic story here, one that is very familiar to me personally.

I was married once. At the beginning of the relationship, I was a very young high-school dropout working my way through a series of short-term minimum wage jobs. My soon-to-be husband was nine years older than me with an engineering degree and not just a job but a career. 

This will surprise anyone who knows me now, but there was a stage in my life in which advancing from a chambermaid to a hotel receptionist seemed like an unachievable goal. Some of my friends served tables at conference dinners, and at the time that was my dream job.

When we married, this inequality between us in terms of education, earnings, and ambition set the stage for inequality between us on two other dimensions—how we divided our time between paid work and housework, and who held the balance of bargaining power. 

I cooked. He decided where we lived. I cleaned. He decided how much I worked. I cared for our daughter. He decided when we would have her. I wanted more children. His decision was final.

It was a traditional marriage with gender-specific roles. And I wasn’t unhappy with that. 

The summer before my 27th birthday, I applied for admission to university. Not with his approval, but then he also thought it unlikely that I would be accepted. When I was accepted, he was silent. 

When I graduated three years later, educated, ambitious and on my way to graduate school, our marriage was over. 

The results of this Swedish research showing that women who are promoted divorce at a higher rate probably has nothing to do with female empowerment threatening the stability of marriage, nor does it have anything to do with emasculated men unable to cope with successful women. 

We marry with expectations of how we will divide our time between work, home and play. We have expectations of whose career, if any, will take the priority. We have a sense of how decisions will be made and, when there is disagreement, who is likely to get their own way. 

Early in any marriage, the roles are decided. Renegotiating those roles years, or even decades, into a marriage can be exhausting and, sometimes, impossible. Particularly when those roles have been dictated by well-established social (read: gender) norms. 

When the authors of this study separated women into two groups—those in more egalitarian marriages and those in more gender-traditional marriages—the divorce effect of a promotion completely disappeared for those in more equal marriages.

It is couples that had prioritized the husband’s career in the past that are not surviving the wife’s new position of authority, and demands on her time that take her out of the home. 

I was happily married when I started my degree. Do I regret that decision? No. 

But if women from conservative homes are reluctant to run for office, or seek other positions of authority, for fear that their marriage will be put at risk, I am sympathetic to that perspective. 

The good news, is that as marriage becomes more egalitarian over time—and men and women enter marriages with different expectations—we will see more women taking up positions of leadership, and staying married. Good news for me, bad news for those who don’t want to see women in those roles. 

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