Why some married couples stay together and some head for divorce is based on a complex and obviously quite situation-specific tangle of factors, making it hard for researchers to pinpoint the best ways to prevent less-than-harmonious outcomes. (Of course, many still try, with varying degrees of scientific vigor, leading to studies that are splashed around the news with headlines like “10 Scientific Ways to Lead A Loving and Lasting Marriage”).
However, one element that has been shown, with strong evidence, to impact romantic behavior is the availability of alternative partners. Past investigations centered on humans and other animal species that form long-term pair bonds have suggested that when there are a lot of other prospects in close proximity, individuals – particularly male individuals – are more likely to switch mates. But due to the long list of possible confounders and a dearth of studies that adequately assess relationship outcomes in females, the validity of this phenomenon remains in question.
Caroline Uggla and Gunnar Andersson, two sociologists from Stockholm University, sought to take a fresh look at this topic using a strong dataset. Their new study, published in Biology Letters, dove into Denmark’s detailed national register data to examine divorce rates as a function of the sex ratios present in the country’s main work sectors. All men and women born in or after 1945 who married an opposite-sex spouse between 1981 and 2002 were included, and the calculations were adjusted for various confounding factors.
“Denmark is an ideal setting for this study,” the duo wrote. “Divorce is broadly accepted, whether or not a couple has children, and both men and women typically stay active in the labour market after starting a family. Notably, the sector sex ratio in Denmark varies greatly: within the healthcare sector, 18 percent are men, whereas in construction, about 92 percent are men.”
Confirming their hypothesis, the results of the analysis showed that there was a small but significant increase in the likelihood of divorce among both men and women who worked in fields with a higher than 50/50 proportion of members of the opposite sex compared with those who did not, though the trend was more pronounced in men. People in the restaurant and hotel industries displayed the highest divorce risks, whereas those in the farming and library sectors had the lowest. Interestingly, higher education was associated with a greater chance of divorce among men in skewed sex ratio occupations but a lower chance among women in such scenarios.
The team note that there are several non-mutually exclusive explanations of why these patterns have emerged. First off, it’s logical to presume that being surrounded by a bevy of potential partners at work increases the chance that an individual will meet others with similar levels of education and interests, and thus be tempted to dissolve their existing attachment for a new one. As to the variation between sectors, the authors speculate that different personality types may be drawn to different jobs, or that the levels of stress or interpersonal interactions involved in some industries are more likely to foster workplace romance.
However, it’s important to take all this with a sizable grain of correlation-not-causation salt. As the authors note themselves, the data source did not allow them to look at any relationship details and did not look at the sex ratios of the specific organization where subjects worked – only their field as a whole. In addition, two similar studies conducted in the US have found somewhat contradictory results: one found that more opposite-sex potential partners is associated with more infidelity among men, but not women, whereas another found higher divorce rates among women but not men.
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