Many bird species have ornaments that are expressed equally in both sexes. I use comparative analysis to investigate why some monomorphic birds are highly ornamented, whereas others are drab. The results show a significant positive association between the degree of mutual ornamentation and divorce rate. This result is robust to the removal of the effects of phylogeny, site fidelity, residency, coloniality, nest type, mortality, body size and body–size dimorphism. The level of extra–pair paternity was not related to the degree of mutual ornamentation. I argue that these results are compatible with a process of mutual sexual selection, in which both sexes compete for access to mates. The coupled evolution of ornamentation and divorce rate, from the probable ancestral state of a high degree of ornamentation and a low divorce rate, appears to result mainly from a loss of ornamentation under mate fidelity.