Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Economic Independence, Economic Status, and Empty Nest in Midlife Marital Disruption

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Economic Independence, Economic Status, and Empty Nest in Midlife Marital Disruption

Article excerpt

We examine the risk of separation or divorce later in the marital career from a family development perspective. With data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Mature Women, we use a hazards framework to estimate the effects of women's economic independence, couples' economic status, and family life course factors on the risk of middle-age separation or divorce. Several dimensions of economic independence and economic status influence the risk of midlife marital disruption. Moreover, the transition to empty nest influences the risk of marital disruption, but the effect of empty nest depends on the duration of the marriage.

Key Words: economic independence, empty nest, family development, hazards model, life course, marital distruption.

The incidence of marital disruption varies greatly across phases of the family life course. The highest rates occur in the first few years of marriage and among younger, rather than older, couples. The mechanisms producing higher rates in these groups have been examined extensively (Sweet & Bumpass, 1987). However, despite recent trends in marital disruption that reveal increased rates of divorce and separation across age groups and marital durations (Raschke, 1987; Uhlenberg, Cooney, & Boyd, 1990), we know little about the mechanisms operating in midlife and later life to produce marital instability.

In this study, we use a family development perspective to examine patterns of marital disruption in a panel of married women in midlife between 1967 and 1989. More specifically, we use panel data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Mature Women to estimate the effects of women's economic positions, couples' economic status, and the temporal characteristics of the marriage and family career, particularly empty nest, on the risk of middle-age separation and divorce. The two-decade period is strategic for continuous observation because its beginning is marked by increasing annual rates of divorce that level off and then decline (Bumpass, 1990). By 1989, a significant majority (over 90%) of the sample has entered the empty-nest phase of their marriages, permitting us to study how entering this phase impacts marital disruption, net of the influence of time in the marriage and economic factors.


Recent trends in marital disruption suggest that between one half and two thirds of all first marriages are likely to end in separation or divorce (Castro-Martin & Bumpass, 1989). With the passage of time, few demographic groups have remained immune from marital disruption. Age, income, education, race, and the presence of children have changed in their relative effects on the likelihood of marital disruption; even Catholics are as likely to divorce as non-Catholics (Bumpass, 1990). Although these variables may continue to have relatively significant influences on marital stability, the magnitudes of their effects appear to be diminishing. Along these lines, Bumpass has argued that these diminishing effects probably reflect the "force of secular individualism more clearly than changes in any other family domain" (p. 485).

Our knowledge of these effects is overwhelmingly restricted to marital disruption in younger and shorter marriages because of the overall timing of marital disruption in the population. Agespecific rates of divorce reveal that, although the youngest age groups account for smaller shares of the married population, they are also responsible for the majority of divorces. By the late 1970s, the divorce rates of women aged 45-49 were approximately 25% as high as those of women aged 25-29 (Michael, 1978). A decade later, the divorce rate for younger couples leveled off (Norton & Moorman, 1987), but it rose among older age groups and provoked some projections of continued increases for cohorts over age 50 into the 1990s (Uhlenberg et al.,1990).

The temporal factors in earlier marital dissolution are well established. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.