- Research points to the most common reasons for divorce: drifting apart, affairs, and fighting.
- Often people wait too long to save their marriage. Seeking counseling at the first sign of trouble is critical.
- Premarital counseling has been shown to reduce the likelihood of future divorce.
Research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) looked at the reasons given when people divorce.
The three most common reasons are, in order:
- Lack of commitment
- Conflict and arguing
Lack of Commitment
Lack of commitment is the most common reason according to the research. Jenny and Mike (not their real names) came to my office for counseling. Mike said he cared about Jenny but that he no longer had romantic feelings toward her. They had been married for 15 years and both had been caught up in busy careers. He hoped they could remain friends to raise their children together. Jenny complained that she asked Mike to go to counseling with her when she felt him pulling away. He refused, saying, “I don’t believe in therapy,” and assumed that their problems would work themselves out without help. The love between them had dried up due to their lack of attention to the problem. Neither was motivated to try to rekindle their relationship at this point. They were sad and disappointed but agreed that it was time to move on.
Jackie and Nan sought counseling when Jackie first felt Nan withdrawing from intimacy. Fortunately, they both wanted to stay together and were willing to listen to each other and understand each other’s perspectives. Neither wanted to put their family through a painful divorce. They were eager to learn new communication skills that helped them have difficult conversations. Many issues had been “swept under the rug” due to their mutual fear of conflict, but with therapy and new ways of communicating they were able to reconnect with the love that had initially drawn them together. Over the years they returned to my office occasionally for “tune-ups,” and recently sent me a photograph of their 25th wedding anniversary celebration.
Cat decided to divorce Leon when she discovered his emotional affair with a co-worker. She had been scrolling through his text messages because, as she said, “I had a gut feeling that something was going on with him and Mari.” When she found suggestive texts and photos on his phone, she exploded. Her rage and pain were overwhelming to her and she told me “I can never forgive him.” Unfortunately, Cat had just given birth to their first child and her emotions felt unmanageable. Leon explained that he had felt “shut out” when the baby was born and sought comfort from a co-worker. He deeply regretted his actions and told Cat that he still loved her. Cat was unwilling to repair their relationship and then she began to withhold parenting time. The escalating custody conflict exacerbated the problem. When I met them the court battle was in full swing. It seemed to me that Cat and Leon had married too young and were too immature to do the work to repair the betrayal. By this time both were entrenched in their positions, and my appeal on behalf of their child was ineffective.
Maxine found a screenshot of an Instagram photo of Martin with another woman in Martin’s desk drawer. The other woman happened to be Maxine’s best friend. This was a double betrayal by her husband and her best friend. For weeks she tormented Martin with a barrage of questions, wanting every detail about when the affair had started, where they had gone, and even what gifts he had purchased for his new love. She thought if she knew more that she would feel more in control of her emotions. Unfortunately, this tactic failed. Each bit of information felt like pouring acid on the wound. Martin felt terrible about the pain and anger that his responses were causing but continued to answer her questions. He hoped that his full confession would open the possibility of Maxine forgiving him. Maxine and Martin divorced, and Maxine remained bitter for years.
In my work, infidelity has been the most common reason given for divorce. I have seen that people quickly jump to divorce when there has been a breach, and one person is too aggrieved to be able to repair the marriage. It is my impression that in previous generations partners worked longer to keep the marriage together. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this trend, one of which is that divorce no longer carries the extreme stigma that it has in the past. Another reason is that many women are less financially dependent on their husbands.
Infidelity is a traumatic experience for the person who discovers it. Cat told me that the wound could never be healed, she could never trust Leon again, and that she “would see him in court.” In some marriages, the infidelity is a one-time straying, and in others the affair is long-term. The person in a long-term affair might initiate the divorce in order to be with the new partner.
Sometimes the person who strayed wants to keep the marriage together, but the wounded partner feels the cheating was the final straw. Meg and Brian came to my office with this dilemma. Meg told Brian that she had cheated with the contractor because she felt Brian wasn’t paying attention to her. She thought his jealousy would bring him back to their marriage. This backfired, as Brian decided to divorce Meg and soon remarried a new partner. It might have turned out differently if Meg had talked with Brian about her loneliness in the marriage, or if they had found a competent marriage counselor to help them.
Fortunately, infidelity is not always fatal to a marriage. While it is a marital crisis, the relationship can be healed if both people are committed to doing so. In my work with Kirk and Fran, Kirk was eager to keep his marriage together, even though his love for his affair partner was deep. He immediately changed his job (where they both worked) and blocked her on his phone. He grieved the loss for many months but was able to let her go. He worked hard to make amends to Fran, and it took two years for them to close the chapter on the betrayal. Fran was able to tolerate his grieving while working through her own grief, and Kirk was able, over time, to earn back her trust. As a result of this work, their relationship became stronger and more committed than it ever had been.
Conflict and Arguing
While some relationships wither away quietly, others suffer increasingly frequent fighting and very poor communication. Over time one or both people give up. Clients tell me that these arguments are often over trivial matters that escalate into nasty attacks filled with blame and criticism. Often, they can’t even remember what the argument was about. This is the point at which couples may seek therapy as a last resort. Unfortunately, it is often too late to save the relationship. When Paul and Rachel came to my office, they immediately began a heated inventorying of their grievances, many of which dated back to the early years of their marriage. They quickly escalated to wild accusations and contemptuous defensiveness. They were unable to change this long-term dynamic and eventually agreed to part ways.
Paul and Rachel had been married for more than twenty years and had three teenaged kids. The children had witnessed their arguments for years. I couldn’t help but wonder how two people who had once loved each other deeply allowed their relationship to become so toxic. I believe that their fighting was a kind of negative attachment, that they still cared deeply about each other. If they didn’t care so much, they wouldn’t have such heated quarrels. But at this point, they were both worn out. Once again, it might have ended differently if they had sought counseling to change their dynamic earlier in their relationship.
Strategies to Prevent Divorce
All of the stories above illustrate the importance of counseling at the first sign of trouble.
There is research that supports pre-marital counseling as an effective way to keep a marriage alive and prevent the “final straws” that lead to the breakup. Learning communication skills, how to resolve disagreements, and problem-solving skills before the problems start gives couples tools should difficult issues arise. In addition, premarital counseling can normalize the fact that all marriages will have challenges at times. People often marry with the naïve belief that their relationship will always be blissful, or that a wedding will solve the problems that already have come up in their relationship. Predicting difficulties and planning ahead to face them with a commitment to seeking help when necessary, can save many marriages from the trauma of a divorce.
© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2021