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Is Marriage Good or Bad for Women?

A popular book suggests marriage is unwise, but research indicates otherwise.

Key points

  • A recent popular book criticizes marriage as good for men, but not for women.
  • Yet a recent major national survey indicates that married women are much happier than unmarried women.
  • Generalizing from one unhappy marriage to all marriages is unrealistic and unhelpful.

As a therapist, divorce lawyer, and divorce mediator over the past 40 years, I always find it interesting when my clients (about equally men and women) generalize about marriage and divorce from their own experience. After assisting with about 2,000 divorces, I must say that each person’s situation is somewhat unique, and their opinions about marriage range from quickly re-marrying someone else (sometimes within a week or a day of their divorce becoming final) to never marrying again (sometimes wanting to but not finding the right person and sometimes definitely never wanting to marry again).

Antionio Guillem/Shutterstock
Antionio Guillem/Shutterstock

I reflected on this when reading an essay by Lyz Lenz adapted from her 2024 book This American Ex-Wife: How I Ended My Marriage and Started My Life. In her view, marriage limits women but favors men. She cites statistics to support her concerns. “These days, nearly 70 percent of divorces are initiated by women who are tired, fed up, exhausted, no longer in love. Women who are unhappy.” She came to the conclusion that she could have her career or her marriage, but not both, because her husband was not supportive enough of her career and was generally a jerk.1

The percentage of those who file the petition for divorce is accurate. But I have observed that there are many reasons for this besides men being satisfied and women being dissatisfied. Women consult lawyers more often, while many men want to do it without lawyers, which means women often do the filing first at the advice of their lawyers. Women tire of the legal status quo of a marriage drifting apart more quickly than men, even when both are equally unsatisfied. In divorce mediation, we ask the parties which one wants to file the petition to start the divorce process and some flip a coin because starting the process plays no role in the final outcome. The idea that men are happy with marriage and women are unhappy appears to be an overgeneralization. I have seen a roughly equal number of cases of the opposite and so many cases where both are unhappy—with each other, but not marriage in general.

Contrast Lenz’ book with a 2023 essay by David Brooks, “To Be Happy, Marriage Matters More Than Career.” He points out that today’s young people are more oriented toward careers but missing the fact that marriage can be more emotionally satisfying. “As a culture, we could improve our national happiness levels by making sure people focus most on what is primary—marriage and intimate relationships—and not on what is important but secondary—their careers.” Brooks points out that a good career and a lousy marriage won’t make you happy, “but if you have a great marriage and a crappy career you will be happy.” He cites research from the University of Chicago that indicates that marriage is “the most important differentiator between happy and unhappy people. Married people are thirty points happier than the unmarried.”2

A deeper look into this subject comes from the General Social Survey (GSS), a national survey that includes family satisfaction. Its 2022 survey revealed that marriage and family are strongly associated with happiness for both men and women. The GSS results showed that for women 18-55, married women were happier than unmarried women. While the majority were “pretty happy,” the difference for “very happy” women was dramatic: “40 percent of married women with children were very happy, compared to 25 percent of married childless women, 22 percent of unmarried childless women, and 17 percent of unmarried women with children.” Regarding men, the survey found that 35 percent of married men with children are “very happy,” compared to 30 percent of married men without children, 14 percent of unmarried men without children, and 12 percent of unmarried men with children.3

Then why was Lenz so broadly negative? Another 2024 reviewer of her book, Lily Meyer, suggests that it has to do with women’s role primarily in the past. “This American Ex-Wife uses the tale of Lenz’s marriage ending, alongside statistics and interviews and a startling amount of country-music criticism, to argue that straight marriage is a collapsing edifice, a ‘failed utopia’ and ‘violent prison’ that women should abandon," Meyer writes. "Lenz is correct that marriage is riddled with problems. It has historical roots in a system that subsumed women’s property and legal identity.”4

Meyer agrees with Lenz that the burdens of housework and childcare still land more on women’s shoulders and that these are reasons that women often fall behind or drop out of the job market. Lower pay still impacts women’s choices. But many couples today are working at equality and many are succeeding. As Meyer concludes about Lenz’s promotion of divorce, “That idea may be compelling, but it offers little hope for the reader who might want an egalitarian marriage for themselves or for those they love—one that uplifts and protects men and women alike.” She criticizes Lenz for turning her personal story “into an archetype” for everyone to follow.5

Of course, many marriages are unhappy, unsatisfying, and/or violent, and getting divorced in these situations may truly set one free. Many of these situations involve a partner with a high-conflict personality or one of the Cluster B personality disorders (narcissistic, borderline, antisocial, and histrionic), which research indicates includes approximately 5 percent of adults (male and female).6 A similar percentage may have less severe "traits" of these Cluster B disorders. Research indicates that Cluster B disorders are associated with “domineeringness, vindictiveness, and intrusiveness,” and “an inability to care about the needs of others.”7

Yet, with therapy, some partners are able to learn skills to overcome their disorders and have improved their marriages, such as the relationship and stress management skills provided by Dialectical Behavior Therapy for borderline personality disorder.8

In other words, one way or another, there is hope for individuals and couples. Don't get stuck in a bad marriage, but it's alright to aim for a good one.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


1. Lyz Lenz, "Women are divorcing — and finally finding happiness," The Washington Post, February 28, 2024.

2. David Brooks, "To Be Happy, Marriage Matters More Than Career," New York Times, August 17, 2023.

3. Brad Wilcox and Wendy Wang, "Who Is Happiest? Married Mothers and Fathers, Per the Latest General Social Survey," Institute for Family Studies, September 12, 2023.

4. Lily Meyer, "A Grim View of Marriage—And an Exhortation to Leave It," The Atlantic, February 28, 2024.

5. Meyer, Grim View.

6. American Psychiatric Association (APA): Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2022, 734.

7. Wilson S., Stroud, C. and Durbin, C. Interpersonal Dysfunction in Personality Disorders: A Meta-Analytic Review, Psychology Bulletin, July 2017; 143(7): 677-734.

8. Marsha Linehan, Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. (Guilford Press, 1993.)

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