Many spouses across the United States earn approximately equal incomes. While there are still legitimate discussions worth having about so-called “glass ceilings,” the trend is clear: An increasing number of women earn about the same as their husbands. While this evolution may surprise some, it shouldn’t have a significant effect on our society. For many years, the United States has upheld equal rights for women. On the other hand, many states have divorce laws that were written based on an underlying assumption of wealth inequality between spouses. What happens when most marriages occur between equal earners in the United States? Will lawmakers need to completely rewrite divorce systems? Have we already reached this point?

About a Third of All Marriages are Now “Egalitarian”

According to a recent study by PEW Research, almost 30% of all heterosexual marriages now contain spouses who earn equal incomes. This trend has continued since 1972, when only 11% of marriages were “egalitarian” – and 85% contained male breadwinners. Today, only 55% of marriages contain male breadwinners. In addition, more marriages contain female primary breadwinners in the modern era – and this number has risen from 5% in 1972 to 16% today. 

Egalitarian Marriages Lead to Different Types of Divorces

When spouses end egalitarian marriages, many of the existing divorce laws are inconsequential. Specifically, alimony becomes a moot point in these cases. Assuming both parents receive shared custody of their children (which is the norm today), child support may also prove unnecessary. Even property division could become a relatively straightforward process – especially if both spouses enter the marriage with approximately equal net worths and earn identical sums throughout their time together. 

In addition, spouses with stable incomes and assets are more likely to create prenuptial agreements before signing their marriage contracts. Spouses in egalitarian marriages both have “something to lose,” and they may feel more inclined to protect their wealth. All of this may lead to a streamlined divorce process where few (if any) state laws are relevant or applicable. 

Egalitarian Marriage May Present Unique Issues 

PEW Research also points out that even though egalitarian marriages involve equal incomes, they do not necessarily involve equal divisions of labor. Specifically, their study shows that women spend more time caring for children and carrying out housework compared to their male counterparts in egalitarian marriages. This is a crucial point, and it has the potential to create unique, important issues in the case of a divorce. 

Most jurisdictions recognize the non-economic contributions of each spouse during the marriage. These include things like housework and childcare. If a woman performs more of these duties during marriage, she may experience more positive property division outcomes – especially in equitable distribution states. 

PEW Research states that in egalitarian marriages, women spend about 4.5 hours per week on housework, while their husbands spend only two hours performing the same duties. In addition, women spend about seven hours per week on childcare – while men spend only five looking after the kids. These factors could prove to be the most decisive issues in property division disputes – as they may represent the only real differences in marital contributions between spouses with equal incomes.