Marriage, divorce and the bottom line

Rich women are more likely to ditch their husbands. Rich men are less likely to divorce
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It is in affairs of the heart, in falling in and out of love, in their grand passions and bitter hatreds, that human beings are at their most emotional and least calculating. Surely?

Well, not according to economists. The Mr Spocks of the social sciences have discovered that financial calculations play a decisive role in the messy, painful and disruptive business of divorce. Rich men are less likely than poorer ones to divorce - because their wives cling on to their incomes. Rich women are more likely to ditch their husbands, saying, like Garbo, "I vont to be alone" - because they can afford to.

The tale this week of a wealthy doctor on a basic pounds 92,000 a year whose wife had left him for her lover is unusual, according to an analysis presented to the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society yesterday. It was Anne Hart who moved out of the family house and started the divorce proceedings against her husband, David. The more normal pattern would have been for him to leave his wife, netted by another woman for his high salary as a GP, police surgeon and prison doctor.

A money motive did emerge, however, when David disappeared to Spain, having emptied the joint bank account and run up a pounds 10,000 overdraft. He told a local newspaper: "It was imperative for money to be invested abroad, to keep it away from my wife."

The three Bristol University economists speaking at yesterday's conference (in romantic Stoke-on-Trent) reckon that money always gets to the heart of the matter. There have been enormous social changes during the past two decades that go a long way to explaining patterns of marriage and divorce - fewer of the former and more of the latter, on both sides of the Atlantic. But earnings turn out to make a big difference to these most personal of decisions.

The economists' taxonomy goes as follows. If you are rich, you will have less need for a marriage partner to keep you in the style to which you want to be accustomed. On the other hand, having a lot of money makes you a good catch. The two effects work in opposite directions: you need potential partners less, but they want you more.

Equally, when married to a rich partner, you will be more reluctant to give up their income by divorcing them. The problem is that they will be an attractive prize for potential rivals. There are countervailing pressures.

Data on marital histories confirm the importance of money. For one thing, the higher somebody's income and the better educated they are - whether male or female - the later they are likely to marry in the first place. Also, the big difference between men and women turns out to apply to high-income earners.

The balance between being a good catch and being financially self-supporting is different for the sexes. Rich men, once caught, tend to stay caught. They get married later but stay married longer, on average, than low-earning males. Rich women also marry later, but once trapped are more likely than their poorer sisters to bail out. For women, high earnings buy freedom and make marriage an optional extra, in financial terms at any rate.

Mrs Hart would have done well to think about her financial position before letting passion sweep her away. She has put the pounds 250,000 family house up for sale, but is reported to have said: "I am ruined."

The normal human reaction to this particular divorce, about as messy as can be, seems to have come from Mr Hart's mother. Hectored about David's abandonment of his financial responsibilities to keep his wife and pay the children's private school fees, she told her daughter-in-law to "roast in hell". For the penalties beyond this world, there is no cost-benefit analysis.