I apply George Levinger’s (1965, 1976, 1999) social-psychological social exchange theory to explain why the higher educated experience a lower break-up rate than the lower educated. Levinger addresses the cohesiveness of pairs in the same way as group cohesiveness, by considering both ‘attractions to stay in the relationship’ and ‘barriers to leave the relationship’. When both partners have continuing positive feelings toward the other and at the same time some constraining feelings, ties, and structures, the pair commitment is strong. ‘Attractions’ are the balance of costs (time, energy, and other expenditures that are required for continuing a relationship) and benefits of the marriage (receipt of love, status, information, money, and other resources). They consist of affectional, material, and symbolic rewards. ‘Barriers’ are constraints to dissolution, such as having marital specific capital and marital commitment, that only play a role once the spouses are dissatisfied with the relationship or start thinking about breaking-up. Among such constraints are affectional, material, and symbolic costs. Note that Levinger (1965, 1976) also includes ‘alternative attractions’, which he defines as attractions from alternative relationships (e.g. including family or work relationships). Levinger points out that theoretically, someone would leave her/his current relationship if and when the benefits from the alternative situation exceed the benefits of the current relationship, if there were a complete absence of barriers.Footnote 1 However, following Boertien and Härkönen (2014), I state that these alternative attractions can be considered ‘barriers’ to break up since a lack of alternatives creates such barriers. For instance, women’s own occupational status and employment (both conceptualized here as barriers to break-up) can be seen as alternative attractions to live alone rather than together in a non-satisfactory relationship.
Levinger discusses a set of determinants that were proven relevant in the American society of the sixties and seventies. I update the then relevant attractions and barriers explaining the break-up risk that were suggested by Levinger by adding a couple perspective (e.g. having not only his occupational status or income (as indicators of rewards), but also hers’ (as indicators of costs)). Note that the GGS has some information on couple characteristics but are not full couple data.
I now first discuss Levinger’s attractions and barriers in detail (based on Levinger, (1965, 1976)) and then I formulate hypotheses of the mediating/confounding effects of these rewards and costs in explaining educational differences in union dissolution. In formulating the hypotheses (expectations) of the mediating relationships, I use the following conceptual models (Figs. 5.1a and 5.1b), which will be elaborated upon in the following section, where I discuss each attraction and barrier separately. I expect that attractions in general are explaining the relationship between education and separation, whereas barriers are suppressing this relationship.
2.1 Attractions to Stay Together
2.1.1 Affectional Rewards
Levinger distinguishes between companionship, esteem, and sexual enjoyment as measuring the affectional rewards of a relationship. He states that companionship has been strongly related to marital adjustment, esteem is reflected in few complaints about the spouse, and sexual enjoyment is related to marital satisfaction. I expect that higher educated women are more satisfied with their relationship (van Damme and Dykstra 2018) and those that are more satisfied will be less likely to break up (Karney and Bradbury 1995).
2.1.2 Material Rewards
Examples of material rewards are family income and joint homeownership. Oppenheimer (1997) argued, in her criticism of Gary Becker’s specialization and trade model, that Becker did not take into account the inflexibility and riskiness of one-earner households and stated that one should consider the absolute level of standard of living of the couple (or the wife alone) to assess its’ marital stability. Thus, one can expect from Oppenheimer’s perspective that higher educated women are in couples with more financial resources and that such couples are less likely to break up because they are more flexible and have a less risky intra-household division of labour. I add to Levinger’s determinants the possession of durables in the household as a measure of non-deprivation and his unemployment as an economic stressor, following Boertien and Härkönen (2018).
2.1.3 Symbolic Rewards
Among the rewards with a symbolic meaning, Levinger refers to the spouse’s education and occupational status, next to similarity in social characteristics like education, religion, and age. These variables are indicators of a couple’s social rank in society or status in the community. If she has a higher education, his education and social status are usually higher (in case of homogamy (e.g. Grow and Van Bavel 2015; Schwartz and Mare 2005)), but higher education may also be related to a higher income and thus a better living standard, better communication skills, and more importance of companionship with the spouse (Levinger 1976).
Social similarities like education and age similarities between the partners may reflect the couple’s ability to communicate. In addition, educational similarity may go together with similar beliefs and attitudes, whereas age similarity with similar interests and physical health. Homogamous couples may thus be less likely to break up (Kalmijn et al. 2005; Petts 2016), although Levinger notes that this would apply less to hetereogamous couples who have “[…] free[d] themselves from the disjunctive forces of their social backgrounds” (Levinger 1976: p. 33), something that may have mattered more some decades ago than in nowadays society.
In any case, I will examine the mediating/confounding influence of educational similarity of the spouses, along with age difference. I expect that higher educated women are more likely to be in a homogamous or female hypergamous relationship (Schwartz and Han 2014). However, based on the aforementioned theoretical arguments, I do not have an expectation about the likelihood of breaking up of homogamous couples versus educational/age (dis)similar couples. I will also directly include conflict resolution skills of the couple to assess mediating effects of possible better communication among the higher educated (Amato 1996) and a negative association between communication and separation.
2.2 Barriers to Leave the Relationship
2.2.1 Affectional Costs
Dependent children are one example of affectional costs. Childless couples are found to be more likely to break up than couples with children (even after controlling for union duration) (Liefbroer and Dourleijn 2006).Footnote 2 Some studies have pointed out that, even though the higher educated postpone having children more often than the lower educated, they catch up by having a smaller spacing period between consecutive childbirths and therefore the completed family size of higher educated mothers would be similar to those of lower educated ones (conditional upon age at first birth) (e.g. Castro Martin 2006). However, others demonstrated that a negative educational gradient of quantum fertility exists and that postponement played a large role in explaining this, at least in the UK (e.g. Berrington, Stone, and Beaujouan 2015). It is thus unclear what to expect when it comes to a mediating effect of having children on the association between her education and union dissolution depending upon whether I will find a relationship between her education and affectional costs (i.e. having (young) children).
2.2.2 Material Costs
Material costs may consist of all sorts of financial expenses such as the loss of economies of scale and divorce costs (e.g. filing for divorce, legal services, child maintenance), but also the home ownership status of the partner. If he owns a house and she does not, or he earns more than she does and she has little independent income, she loses more from the relationship than if her contribution is substantial. Thus, a woman can afford to break up more easily if she can support herself outside of the union (e.g. Sayer and Bianchi 2000; van Damme and Kalmijn 2014). I estimate economic independence by occupational status. The lower her status is, the more it would be a barrier to break up, just like her unemployment would be.
Women’s independent social status might also matter in a different way though. In some cases, a woman might improve her financial situation if her husband was exploiting her financially (i.e. he uses most of the income for other than household purposes and consequently she (and the rest of the household) lives in poverty). Moreover, Levinger put forward that in the lower economic strata women would have less to lose materially than in the higher strata. The direction of a mediation effect of women’s own occupational status is thus not entirely clear.
2.2.3 Symbolic Costs
Levinger states that marriage is also a “symbolic acknowledgement of one’s place in a culture and in a kin network” (Levinger 1976: p. 36). He sums up obligational feelings towards the marital bond, religious constraints, and external pressure from primary groups and community. The first factor concerns commitment towards the partner: if a spouse is highly committed, the less likely she will break up or even think about breaking up. Previous divorce experiences and parental divorce are indicative of a person’s tolerance to break up (Dronkers and Härkönen 2008; Poortman and Lyngstad 2007). Even though there might be differences between divorce risks of different religious denominations, having had a religious ceremony is positively related with marital stability, just like church attendance is.Footnote 3 Connected kinship and friendship networks are also important for marital stability [e.g. the quality of intergenerational relationships, in-law relationships, and broader social contexts (Högnäs and Carlson 2010)], although in the case of disapproval by tight networks the divorce risk of the couple may be higher – this especially applies to women’s network (Sprecher and Felmlee 1992). Small communities (rural areas) have lower divorce risks than larger ones due to larger social pressure and the couple’s social visibility.Footnote 4
I expect that her education negatively relates to union dissolution tolerance since higher educated couples will be more capable to break through the social and economic barriers and divorce stigma (education has a ‘liberating’ effect (Blossfeld et al. 1995)). Regarding commitment, my expectation is less clear: on the one hand, higher educated couples may be less committed due to their (economically) more independent position (Becker 1981), on the other hand, selection effects may lead to a pattern of more committed couples among the higher educated because these couples take longer before they form a union (Blossfeld and Huinink 1991). I expect that union dissolution tolerance is positively associated to break up and commitment negatively.
2.3 General Hypotheses on Attractions and Barriers
As presented in Fig. 5.1a, I expect that attractions, like family income, non-deprivation, his social status, age and educational homogamy, and relationship satisfaction are indicative for a lower break-up rate of the couple. Assuming that her education is associated to all of these rewards (symbolic, material, and affectional) (perhaps with the exception of educational/age (dis)similarity), her higher education is expected to lead to a lower break-up rate due to the higher attractions to stay together (H1). In contrast (see Fig. 5.1b), I expect lower barriers to be related to her education because higher education might go together with less material and symbolic costs to break-up (for affectional costs, I do not have an expectation). I expect that her higher education is related to higher break-up rates because she has lower barriers (costs) to disrupt the relationship (H2) (and thus barriers suppress the negative educational gradient of union dissolution).
2.4 The Observed Context
I pool and compare six countries that differ remarkably on their divorce rate (access to divorce) and welfare state provision. The first component was found to be important by Matysiak et al. (2014) in their meta-analysis on European countries. The latter one is considered to be a prominent (cluster of) cross-national explanatory factors by Puur et al. (2016). Note, however, that others have found that in more generous welfare states the educational gradient more often is positive rather than negative (Härkönen and Dronkers 2006), although their expectation was otherwise. Generous welfare state benefits and services were expected to increase women’s economic independence, which is especially beneficial for the lower educated who might then take the decision to break up more easily.
In Table 5.1, the Crude Divorce Rate (CDR), the female labour force participation rate, institutional child care support for working mothers, and single parent allowances are shown for 2005 (if available for that year). In Russia, the CDR is highest, followed by Czech Republic, France, and Austria respectively. In Bulgaria and especially in Georgia, the CDR is low. A better indicator of the divorce rate in a country is the Total Divorce Rate (TDR) (not presented) and this indicator gives a similar country ordering (no data available for Georgia and Russia).
I expect that a combination of divorce access (represented by the CDR, an indication of the social costs of divorce) and welfare state generosity (indicating the economic costs of divorce) will guide the cross-national differences I might find in the extent of educational differences in union dissolution rates. Lower social and economic costs of divorce will be related to a more negative educational gradient as the barriers to break up for the lower educated are reduced in such societies. I expect that the negative gradient is strongest in Czech Republic, Austria, and France, where both access to divorce and welfare state provisions are ample, followed by Russia, which has high access to divorce but low welfare state provisions compared to the other countries. The weakest gradient I expect in Bulgaria and Georgia, where both access to divorce and welfare state provisions are low (H3).