Toxic Careers, Declining Industries, and Strained Marriages

divorce-rate-and-occupationsPre-COVID Research from 2015 reminds us that career choices have a significant impact on our marital satisfaction.

In 2015, statistician Nathan Yau of the data site Flowing Data analyzed divorce statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey.

Among other things, Yau was able to rank order and correlate careers from the lowest divorce to the highest divorce rate.

This data takes on new meaning in the context of our current struggle with COVID Stress.

I’ve been thinking more about COVID Stress, and many of my clients are bringing work-life balance issues into their couples therapy more than ever before.

Understanding the science behind COVID Stress, and the divorce rate of occupations requires some sort of a pre-COVID baseline. Fortunately, several studies in 2015 researched the divorce rates of various occupations.

Yau’s Research Was Pre-COVID, And He Uncovered 2 Particularly Significant Marital Stressors:

  •  Declining Industries. We should think broadly about this in our current predicament. A vast swath of industries might be in a COVID-induced decline.
  • Low Wage Work. Security guards, food service workers, etc. External stressors significantly impact relationships. Being poor is enormous stress in and of itself…and is only more so during COVID.

The notion of toxic careers also attracted the attention of Here’s how they ranked the divorce rate of occupations in 2015:

Divorce Rate and Occupations…the Marriage-Friendly Careers

  1. Actuaries 17%… Perhaps more than anyone, they understand the cost of being in a bad marriage?
  2. Physical scientists 18.9%
  3. Medical scientists and life scientist 19.6%
  4. Clergy 19.8%
  5. Software developers 20.3%
  6. Physical therapists 20.7%
  7. Optometrists 20.8%
  8. Chemical engineers 21.1%
  9. Religious and education directors 21.3%
  10. Physicians and surgeons 21.8%
  11. Biomedical and agricultural engineers 22%
  12. Podiatrists 22.4%
  13. Dentists 22.5%
  14. Pharmacists 22.6%
  15. Military enlisted tactical operations and air/weapons specialists and crew members 23%
  16. Speech-language pathologists 23.2%
  17. Natural science managers 23.7%
  18. Biological scientists 23.7%
  19. Veterinarians 23.9%
  20. Agricultural products graders and sorters 24%

divorce-rate-and-occupationsDivorce Rate and Occupations…the Marriage-Stressing Careers

  1. Gaming managers 52.9%
  2. Bartenders 52.7%
  3. Flight attendants 50.5%
  4. Gaming service workers 50.3%
  5. Rolling machine setters, operators, and tenders 50.1%
  6. Switchboard operators 49.7%
  7. Extruding and drawing machine setters, operators, and tenders 49.6%
  8. Telemarketers 49.2%
  9. Textile knitting and weaving machine operators and tenders 48.9%
  10. Extruding, forming, pressing, and compacting machine setters, operators, and tenders 48.8%
  11. Telephone operators 47.8%
  12. Massage therapists 47.8%
  13. Gaming cage workers 47.3%
  14. Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses 47%
  15. First-line supervisors of correctional officers 46.9%
  16. Dancers and choreographers 46.8%
  17. Dispatchers 46.6%
  18. Textile machine operators 46.5%
  19. Ambulance drivers and attendants 46.3%
  20. Small engine mechanics 46.2%

And Everything In-Between…

  1. Architecture and engineering 27.5%
  2. Computers and mathematics 27.6%
  3. Military 28.3%
  4. Life, physical, and social science 28.5%
  5. Education and library 30.1%
  6. Health care 31.6%
  7. Community and social services 32.5%
  8. Farming, fishing, and forestry 33.0%
  9. Finance 33.9%
  10. Legal 35%
  11. Arts and entertainment 35.2%
  12. Management 35.7%
  13. Business operations 36%
  14. Construction and extraction 36.5%
  15. Extraction 37.3%
  16. Food preparation and serving 37.4%
  17. Building and grounds cleaning 37.8%
  18. Sales 38.2%
  19. Production 38.9%
  20. Health care support 39.2%
  21. Installation, maintenance, and repair workers 39.3%
  22. Personal care and service 39.6%
  23. Protective services 40%
  24. Transportation 40.5%
  25. Office and administrative support 40.6%

The Special Case of Physicians in a Time of COVID…and the Dawn of “Big Data”

It’s a popular cultural trope that the demands of being a physician often leads to marital problems. Doctors probably have higher divorce rates, right?

“If you talk to physicians, there seems to be this conception or notion that doctors are more likely to be divorced, not only more than other health-care professionals but the population at large,” said the study’s lead author, Anupam Jena, of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Anupam B. Jena, MD, Ph.D., is both an economist and a physician. He is currently the Ruth L. Newhouse Associate Professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School, and he also is a physician in the Department of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Jena is also a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Big Data

Jena’s ground-breaking “Big Data” research correlating the American divorce rate and occupations was published in the online journal  BMJ.  Jena’s team also meticulously analyzed U.S. Census Bureau data. They learned that, in 2015, physicians had a particularly low rate of divorce. Doctors (24%) were less likely to divorce than their bosses (health-care executives, 31%).. and even nurses, (33%).

The BMJ researchers also discovered that attorneys had a higher divorce rate than physicians. This is interesting because, from a demographic perspective, attorneys and physicians are similar in education and income level.

I know this next comment is anecdotal, but I’m curious if other couples’ therapists have had a similar experience. Do physicians pursue couples therapy more than attorneys? I’ve worked with far more doctors and medical industry executives during COVID than attorneys… and I’m curious as to whether or not my experience is typical.

Female Physicians have a Higher Divorce Rate

Dr. Jena has a quibble with the other researchers. According to Jenna, the other studies from 2015 that I mentioned earlier, ( and Flowing Data), did not use “Big Data.”

As a result, their numbers (i.e. showing physicians at 21.8% vs the 24% “Big Data” sample) may be less accurate.

When you look at the data closely, however, there is a gender difference among physicians. Female physicians have a significantly higher divorce rate than male doctors.

To be specific, female doctors are about one-and-a-half times more likely to get divorced than male physicians of a similar age cohort.

 Jena posited that women physicians may be forced to make more difficult work-life balance choices. But, considering the fact that most divorces are initiated by women, this finding is no surprise.

Which of You Works Long Hours Matters…

“Females traditionally bear more of the household and child-rearing responsibilities on average, and female physicians, if they have to do both that and maintain a job as a physician, that could lead to a lot of stress and lead to higher rates of divorce… For women physicians, they appear to be essentially getting a raw deal because there is a trade-off they have to make, that unfortunately, the male doctors don’t have to be making.” Anupam Jena.

medical marriageThis is an issue of growing concern. 47% of medical school graduates are women. Jena’s team also discovered that women who worked long hours were more divorce-prone, but male doctors who worked long hours actually had lower divorce rates.

From a research perspective, the problem of higher divorce rates for female doctors is long-standing.

As in the 2015 Big Data Study, the 1997 John Hopkins study also pointed out that female doctors had a higher divorce rate (37%) than their male equivalents (28%).

Jena said his 2015 “Big Data” study also raises questions about the quality and depth of support for female physicians.

“If you’re a doctor, don’t worry about high divorce rates overall because of the stress of the job,” said Jena, “But if you’re a female doctor, it’s certainly something to be cognizant about, that there is this tension between work-life balance that isn’t there for men.”

How The Study Was Conducted

Talk about Big Data! This study was huge!

Jena’s team studied a cohort of nearly 250,000 physicians, health-care executives, dentists, pharmacists, and nurses.

At the same time, they also collected data on nearly 60,000 attorneys and well over 6 million non-health-care professionals. Jena’s team wondered if the tendency of some professionals, such as physicians, to marry later in life, might explain some lower divorce rates. Perhaps fewer years of marriage is skewing the results?

The John Hopkins Divorce Rate and Medical Occupation Study of 1997

Older studies sliced and diced the divorce rate and occupations by medical specialty. For example, a  1997 study from Johns Hopkins followed their medical school graduates over decades. One of the most interesting findings was that those who specialized in psychiatry were much more likely to be divorced than physicians.

The Johns Hopkins study from 1997  compared the psychological characteristics, marriage histories, and medical specialty for over 1000 physicians who graduated from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine between the years 1948 and 1964.

The Hopkins study was longitudinal. They followed these doctors for nearly 40 years.

They seemed to describe two specific factors which impact the divorce rate and occupations of these doctors:

  • Job stressors that are inherent in the specialty.
  • Family of Origin emotional stressors. Just like everyone else, doctors learn how to be spouses in their family of origin.

The Divorce Rate and Medical Occupations…The 1997 Hopkins Data

Psychiatrists 51%

Surgeons 33%

Internists 24%

Pediatricians  22%

Pathologists 22%

31% for other specialties.

The overall divorce rate was nearly 30% after more than 30 years of follow-up. At year 40, the overall medical divorce rate in 1997 was slightly higher at 32%

When You Marry Matters

  • Physicians who waited until after graduation from medical school had a significantly lower rate of divorce (23%) than those who married during medical school (33%).
  • Whether or not they were an only child, religious affiliation, having a parent who was a physician were not correlated with higher divorce rates.
  • Physicians who were members of an academic honor society during their medical school experience had a lower divorce rate.
  • Doctors who had a parent pass away before their graduation had a lower divorce rate.

 However, the Marriage Year Was Correlated with Divorce Rates:

  • 11 % divorce rate for marriages before 1953.
  • 17 % for those from 1953 to 1957.
  • 24% for those from 1958 to 1962.
  • 21% for those after 1962.

Family of Origin Matters

  • Doctors who reported feeling less emotionally close to their parents had a higher divorce rate.
  • Problems with anger and stress were also correlated with a higher divorce rate.
  • However, in the Hopkins Study, anxiety and depression were not correlated with a higher divorce rate.

“Healthy marriages have deep affection, compatibility, expressiveness and conflict resolution, so the higher risk of divorce in those less emotionally close to their parents could be telling. Feeling distant from your parents may indicate a decreased ability to form an intimate relationship with your spouse. Also, marriage after medical school may allow the relationship to develop in a less stressful environment.” The John Hopkins Study.

Limitations to the 1997 Hopkins Study

In 1997 the Hopkins study was eye-opening…but in 2020, it’s a little ripe.

They did a good job following these doctors over their professional lifetimes… but the data stopped flowing 33 years ago.

The Hopkins study is not only dated, it has some other limitations.

While they examined marital histories through 1987, they did not inquire into questions of marital satisfaction.

Also, the vast longitudinal reach of nearly 40 years captures a population of physicians who married during an era (the 40s and 50s) when, unlike today, divorce was highly frowned upon.

Dr. Jena’s “Big Data” research was a welcome update to the Hopkins study.

Mapping External Stressors

During this time of COVID stress, understanding the correlation between the divorce rate and occupation can help couples therapists focus on occupational and workplace issues as significant external stressors.

We may see more shifts in the divorce rate and occupations as a result of COVID. I’m particularly curious about how front-line doctors and nurses are doing.

In other words, before COVID, I think couples therapists tended to be a bit sanguine about workplace stress…perhaps we should look at work-life balance more carefully now, because understanding and mapping external stressors  are crucial to effective science-based couples therapy.

Work-Life balance has never been more important. Online couples therapy conserves time and has more flexibility than meeting in person. Now, more than ever, couples are embracing the convenience of doing good couples therapy without leaving home.

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Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. “Physicians’ Divorce Risk May Be Linked To Specialty Choice.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 March 1997. <>.

Co-authors of the study, which was part of the Johns Hopkins Precursors Study, an ongoing, prospective study of physicians from the Hopkins medical school graduating classes of 1948 through 1964, were lead author Bruce L. Rollman, M.D., Lucy A. Mead, Sc.M., and Nae-Yuh Wang, M.S.

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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