While gender-equal marriages are becoming increasingly more popular as times change and women enter professions and positions that were once occupied by only men, there are still many marriages where husbands and wives assume traditional gender roles. The danger can come when those roles happen to shift.
Women who begin their marriage either earning less than their husbands or not working at all are significantly more likely to get divorced if their career suddenly surges, according to a new study by Swedish researchers.
As an experienced divorce attorney, here are my thoughts behind why:
Couples that adhered to traditional gender roles in the early phase of their relationship were more likely to experience divorce than those in a gender-equal marriage, according to the study. I have seen this firsthand with some of my clients.
In these cases, the wives earned less than their husbands at the beginning of their relationship, often due to stressors placed on their careers such as young children or having to relocate to support their husbands. Then, later, when the wives had built up their careers and started earning as much as if not more than the husbands, the dynamic of these households changed: The wives did not have as much time to devote to household tasks or care for children and family members.
This upset the status quo, and husbands were often not willing to help pick up the slack.
It's typical for husbands to view their career as more important and feel like the primary breadwinner simply because they earned more, and so they are often threatened by their spouse's new success.
I've represented a number of women who began earning more than their husbands at some point in time during their marriage. Their husbands responded to this by acting as if they were being attacked. In several cases the husbands responded by trying to be more controlling, demanding to know where their wives were, suspecting affairs and wanting to manage all of the money that came in.
On the other end of the spectrum, some husbands started working less because they felt the family didn't need as much money. However, none of them responded by picking up more of the household duties, such as childcare or groceries, which led to resentment on the wives' part.
But there are some things you can do to help improve your relationship's chances.
It's hard to discuss career expectations prior to marriage because not only do you not know what career opportunities and responsibilities may arise, but it's also impossible to understand how issues including raising children, financial problems and caring for elderly relatives can strain a marriage. The best position a couple can be in at the beginning of the marriage is to understand that you are both equal decision makers, no matter what job or what money you are bringing in.
You both have a responsibility to the marriage and to each other to be a team.
Neither party should get to make all of the decisions and neither should check out and let the other spouse deal with all the problems. A healthy, equal power dynamic is necessary when you enter into a marriage and can prevent career-related issues down the road.
When your career becomes demanding and you need more support from your spouse around the house, don't assume your spouse can read your mind. Tell them exactly what needs to be done, such as making appointments, filling out forms for the kids or doing laundry. Spell out what you need them to pick up from the grocery store.
Sometimes your spouse is so distracted by their own schedule, they don't know what needs to happen behind the scenes at home — so don't resent them until you have the conversation about what needs to be done. I've seen in many cases that, in the face of confrontation, women grow silent and unhappy and that's when unhealthy patterns develop.
Be clear about what's needed at work as well: the hours you're working, if you'll be working on weekends, traveling out of town, etc. Always tell your spouse way in advance or have a calendar where both of you can see time commitments. Also, make it a priority to carve out time for your relationship that is work- and kid-free.
Nanda Davis is the founder of Davis Law Practice, current president of the Salem Roanoke County Bar Association, a board member of the statewide Virginia Women Attorney's Association and former president of the Roanoke Chapter of the Virginia Women Attorney's Association.
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