‘Inefficient’ divorces leave couples worse off

IOWA STATE (US) — Roughly one in four couples who divorce in hopes of finding greater happiness may have been better off staying married.

Oleksandr (Alex) Zhylyevskyy, assistant professor of economics at Iowa State University, calls these situations “inefficient divorces.”

A new study published in the Journal of Labor Economics analyzes the economic benefits of marriage from self-reported data collected from nearly 3,900 couples who participated in the National Survey of Families and Households between the 1980s and early 2000s.

“What the paper actually does is look at the impact of spousal cooperation, conflict, and divorce in marriage on the happiness of the spouses,” says Zhylyevskyy, lead author of the paper.


“Effectively, I’m trying to get a measure of how happy people are in a particular marital state and analyze factors impacting that across individuals. I can use this model to look at relevant variables and see how changes might affect the incidence of cooperation, conflict, and divorce among married couples in the United States.”

Zhylyevskyy is one of the first economists to explore why some couples have intense disputes but keep living together, while other couples cooperate, and the rest divorce. He emphasizes that his results are model specific.

“Among several measures that can be quantified with this model is the incidence of cases in which people who divorced could have been better off had they stayed married,” he says.

Child support enforcement is key

Zhylyevskyy calculated the inefficiency of divorce using the characteristics of the couples, including age, education, and race, as they relate to happiness in marriage, separation, and divorce. He also investigated variables that the government has control over such as separation period requirements and child support enforcement.

Eliminating separation period requirements may decrease the conflict rate between spouses by 9.2 percent of its baseline level and increase the divorce rate by 4.0 percent. Also, perfect child support enforcement may decrease the frequency of conflict by 2.7 percent and divorce by 21.2 percent. It also reduces the incidence of “inefficient” divorces.

Longer separation periods are likely to increase financial divorce costs, Zhylyevskyy says, because the spouse may need to retain a lawyer for a longer period of time. There could also be increased psychological cost from being left in marital limbo.

“But the effects of the separation periods do not seem that strong,” he says. “What is more interesting is the policy of how effectively child support payments are enforced. What I have seen is that states have some variation as to how well child support is enforced.

“In some states, you’re more likely to be caught if you’re a ‘deadbeat parent.’ The state can locate you and force you to pay. In other states, that doesn’t work that well. So the strength of child support enforcement affects what you think about your divorce opportunities and may also impact bargaining between spouses in marriage.”

The likelihood of an inefficient divorce would go down if all child support payment rulings were enforced, Zhylyevskyy says, adding the government could indirectly induce people to reconcile their differences and work toward a more successful marriage.

“What I see is some indication that public policy may help decrease inefficiency in divorce,” he says. “Inefficient outcomes are bad and are something that should be avoided.”

Source: Iowa State University