As I discussed in a recent post, couples marrying today face a substantial lifetime risk of divorce. Even if the risk has dropped to around 40 percent, that’s still a lot of divorces. However, you are not a statistic, and you can do things to boost your likelihood of lasting love in marriage.
In this piece, I focus on those who are not yet married but want to be in the future. (In a future post, I’ll focus on those already married who are concerned about their risk for divorce.) I will first share some factors associated with higher risk for divorce and then describe specific strategies for lowering that risk in your life.
Who Is at Greater Risk for Divorcing?
In that recent post on understanding the divorce rate, I reviewed some of the complexities of understanding the average divorce risk. No matter which estimate one uses, the fact is that there is a substantial risk for divorce in marriage. While there are academic arguments about how great the average risk is, there is less argument among scholars about the relative risks. Some people face a higher risk of divorce, and others a very low risk. What follows is not an exhaustive list but the highlights:
Individual Characteristics Linked with Higher Rates of Divorce:
Couple Characteristics Linked with Higher Rates of Divorce:
While some people truly face a higher risk of divorce than others, many who have a very low risk nevertheless worry about divorce happening to them. Some people avoid marriage altogether because of their fear of divorce, but avoiding marriage won’t really reduce one’s chances of experiencing heartache and family instability. To really avoid the possibility of such pain, one would need to completely avoid love, sex, and children. For some, avoiding marriage may actually increase their likelihood of experiencing the very thing they fear—heartache and breakup—because marriage can be a potent force for clarifying and reinforcing commitment between two people.
It’s useful to think about the above list of risk factors in terms of which are dynamic, meaning potentially changeable, and which are static, meaning not changeable.[xii] No one can go back and change the history of their parents’ marriage. Nor, when you are already married, can you go back and change the history of factors such as if you cohabited prior to engagement or had a child before marriage. But even with static risk factors, there is good news: Those seemingly unchangeable risk factors are believed to have their impact on your present life through other dimensions that are dynamic. For example, although having parents who divorced seems to weaken adults’ views of commitment in marriage[xiii], you can control your own beliefs about marriage and your own level of commitment to your partner.
Advice for Those Not Yet Married
If you have not yet married or even chosen a partner, you have, by far, the most power to affect your eventual likelihood of divorce. Those who are already married can only change how they think and act in their existing marriage. Singles who have not yet chosen a partner have a lot more that is still on the table for change. In other words, your stage of life shapes what is dynamic and static in terms of factors associated with your risk for divorce. The earlier you are in the process of finding a mate, the more your choices going forward can affect your future. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you proceed.
If you are likely to marry in a religious setting, contact that group and see if they provide premarital training. If not, check around to see if another group provides this service in a way that fits for the both of you. If you cannot find that, try a relationship education workshop if they exist in your community. Or, as another option, ask around about a local marital therapist who is skilled in helping couples prepare for marriage. If you don’t have any local options, there are online resources for assessing relationships before marriage (e.g., here) or for strengthening relationships (e.g., here, and here).
Some very sound marriages fail because one or both partners expected a level of acceptance, passion, or perfection that is just not possible or exceedingly rare. That’s a real shame. What makes a great marriage is not two perfect people aligning their lives, but two imperfect people transformed by a life of commitment and love. Look for someone who can commit and grow and sacrifice, and be that person to your eventual mate.
"But I Am at High Risk!"
Perhaps you realize that you bring a high risk for divorce to a marriage. Some people get dealt a worse hand in life, and you may have been dealt a tough one. Further, individuals with a greater risk for divorce are more likely to marry other individuals with greater risk for divorce. What can you do? Consider the hand you were dealt and play that hand as well as you can. Even just committing to my first suggestion above, to go slower, could make a huge difference in your life and odds of divorcing. Marriage involves a choice to risk loving another for life, but that is different from gambling with your love life. Just make sure you are deciding rather than sliding your way into your future.
Follow me on Twitter: @DecideOrSlide
Disclosure: I am co-author of two books I referenced here, and I am a partner in the company that publishes the online intervention, ePREP, that is linked as an online resource. Since helping people improve their odds in marriage is my area of specialty, it seemed unwise to avoid recommending anything that my colleagues (such as Howard Markman) and I are associated with.
[i] Glenn, N.D., Uecker, J.E., & Love, R.W.B. Jr. (2010). Later first marriage and marital success. Social Science Research, 39, 787-800.; Teachman, J. D. (2002). Stability across cohorts in divorce risk factors. Demography, 39, 331–351.
[ii] Raley, R. K., & Bumpass, L. (2003). The topography of the divorce plateau: Levels and trends in union stability in the United States after 1980. Demographic Research, 8, 245-260.; Wilcox, W. B., & Marquardt, E. (2011). The State of Our Unions 2011: Marriage in America. Charlottesville, VA: The National Marriage Project. [See the box labeled: Your Chances of Divorce May Be Much Lower than You Think]
[iii] Amato, P. R. (2010). Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments. Journal of Marriage & Family, 72(3), 650-666.
[iv] Kelly, E. L., & Conley, J. J. (1987). Personality and compatibility: A prospective analysis of marital stability and marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 27 - 40.
[v] Amato, P. R. (2010). Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments. Journal of Marriage & Family, 72(3), 650-666. ; Whitton, S. W., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2013). Attitudes toward divorce, commitment, and divorce proneness in first marriages and remarriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 75, 276-287.
[vi] Teachman, J. D. (2003). Premarital sex, premarital cohabitation, and the risk of subsequent marital dissolution among women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(2), 444-455.
[vii] Bramlett, M. D., & Mosher, W. D. (2002). Cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the United States. Vital and Health Statistics, Series 23. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
[viii] Tach, L., & Halpern-Meekin, S. (2009). How Does Premarital Cohabitation Affect Trajectories of Marital Quality? Journal of Marriage & Family, 71(2), 298-317.
[ix] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Amato, P. R., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2010). The timing of cohabitation and engagement: Impact on first and second marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 906-918.
[x] Gottman, J. (1994). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital process and marital outcomes. Lawrence Erlbaum, New Jersey.; Clements, M. L., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2004). Before they said "I do": Discriminating among marital outcomes over 13 years based on premarital data. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 613-626.
[xi] Heaton, T. B. (2002). Factors contributing to increasing marital stability in the United States. Journal of Family Issues, 23, 392-409.
[xii] Stanley, S. M. (2001). Making a case for premarital education. Family Relations, 50(3), 272-280. ; Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (2010). Fighting for your marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
[xiii] Amato, P. R. & DeBoer, D. (2001). The transmission of divorce across generations:
Relationship skills or commitment to marriage? Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 1038-1051.; see also Whitton, S. W., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2008). Effects of parental divorce on marital commitment and confidence. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 789-793.
[xiv] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). Couples' reasons for cohabitation: Associations with individual well-being and relationship quality. Journal of Family Issues, 30, 233 - 258.
[xv] Carroll, J. S., & Doherty, W. J. (2003). Evaluating the effectiveness of premarital prevention programs: A meta-analytic review of outcome research. Family Relations, 52, 105-118. ; Stanley, S. M., Amato, P. R., Johnson, C. A., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Premarital education, marital quality, and marital stability: Findings from a large, random household survey. Journal of Family Psychology, 20(1), 117-126.