Recently an interviewer asked me why people divorce. Seems like a simple question, right? However, a review of the research shows that statistics vary widely from one study to another.
In fact, this is a harder question than one might think. Is there a "final straw," such as an affair? Or a long-term "slow burn," such as lack of communication or lack of commitment?
One reason might be that the research data is based on what people report as the reason for divorce, which might be the "final straw" without mentioning the context or long-term problems. For example, one respondent might say, "He had an affair" ("last straw"), and the underlying reason might be "lack of intimacy" ("slow burn"). Some studies say that "infidelity" is the biggest reason, others say "lack of commitment," and yet others say "basic incompatibility."
In this article, I'll share the reasons that come up most often. However, they are not in any particular order because the research is not definitive.
In my work with clients, I have seen that "betrayal" underlies most of the reasons given for divorce, although not necessarily infidelity. When my clients report a betrayal of their wedding vows, they often describe a betrayal of their hopes and dreams. The starry-eyed bride and groom find that their expectations are not met, and their despair may lead to conflict, acting out, addiction, withdrawal, and the eventual breakdown of the relationship.
Here are the most cited issues that people report as their reasons for divorce:
- Lack of compatibility: Divorcing couples may have different values, such as in parenting or religion, or even diverging political views. Or it might be that there are no common interests, and the relationship has stagnated, leaving one or both partners bored.
- Irreconcilable differences: This is a legal term that people often cite as a catch-all for things like different parenting styles, different goals, different attitudes toward money, or a drifting apart as partners turn to others outside the marriage for friendship.
- Money: Many couples have different relationships with money. This usually comes down to differing or conflicting attitudes toward earning, spending, saving, and sharing (charity).
- Lack of communication: Often, couples will say, "We can't communicate," and this often means unproductive arguing, dishonesty, withdrawal (avoiding), or stonewalling (evasion). This is sometimes about communication skills, but often it masks deeper underlying problems that couples are avoiding or afraid to talk about.
- Constant conflict: Intense and frequent fighting is toxic to a marriage. Couples argue about many different things and often argue about the same things over and over, without resolution. This may be due to power struggles, lack of equality or balance in the relationship, or lack of role clarity.
- Infidelity: When there is an affair, the wound is deep. Whether it can be healed or not depends on the partners' willingness to work hard to repair and/or forgive.
- Lack of intimacy: Couples may complain that there is not enough sex, or that there are sexual dysfunctions. Lack of libido or lack of attraction is often cited as long-term problems. However, intimacy extends beyond the bedroom. Emotional closeness, trust, and respect are the glue that holds couples together, and if this intimacy fades, it might be acted out in the bedroom.
- Getting married too young: People seeking divorce often say that they were not ready or prepared for a long-term commitment. Some say they got married for the "wrong reasons," such as wanting to leave home or their parents' pressure to marry. Clients have told me, "He checked all the boxes, but I didn't really love him."
- Abuse (physical, emotional, verbal, fiduciary): People will seek divorce when the abuse becomes intolerable unless it isn't safe to leave the marriage due to potential violence. The abuse is usually targeted toward one of the partners, but often toward one or more of the children as well. In extreme cases, the abused partner will need legal help to leave the marriage.
- Addiction (alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, shopping, prescription medications): An addict's relationship with her addiction may be stronger than her relationship with her spouse. When the addict refuses treatment or relapses frequently, the relationship is threatened, and the marriage is unstable. Divorce often follows.
Other issues that are often cited as reasons for divorce:
- Unrealistic expectations: One of the most common mistakes people make is expecting the other person to change after the wedding. "I really thought when he felt secure, he'd change, but nothing changed." When people have a long-distance relationship, they may feel they know each other well enough to marry: "We thought we knew each other, but we didn't."
- Conflict with or intrusion by in-laws: The role of in-laws in marriage is often a point of contention. It can lead to not feeling protected: "I think I should come first," "She always chose her mother over our family's needs," "He was always competing with or criticizing my dad."
- Weight gain: This has to do with a loss of attraction, and also perhaps a loss of respect if the spouse refuses to or can't lose weight. However, weight gain is usually a secondary problem, masking deeper problems in the relationship.
- Loss of identity: When a spouse gives up a career to raise children, she can lose of sense of her own identity. There are other reasons for the perceived loss of identity, such as when one spouse is very successful or well-known: "I am sick of living in his shadow."
- Unwilling to work on the marriage: If one partner feels there is a problem, then you both have a problem. However, I often hear spouses complain that "She refuses to go to counseling." Or, "We went to one session, and it didn't work."
- Mental or physical illness or disability: When one partner develops a serious disability or mental or physical illness, her spouse necessarily becomes a caregiver. For some people, the role of the caregiver is simply unacceptable. The situation is so far from what he envisioned on their wedding day that he cannot imagine living in the relationship. He/she doesn't have the capacity to accept such a devastating change in their marriage. Of course, many do stay married and transition into the difficult, and often heroic, role of caregiver.
John Gottman's research found that pre-marital counseling often inoculates marriage against future divorce. His research also showed that by the time couples come to marital counseling, it is often too late. It may be a last-ditch effort to resuscitate the relationship, but someone is already "leaning out" of the marriage.
When you see signs of trouble, I suggest that you take steps immediately. If you sweep your concerns under the rug or assume that the problems will take care of themselves, you are inviting divorce into your life. If you and your spouse are willing to invest in the relationship, the inevitable problems that arise in marriage can often be resolved. Find an experienced marital therapist in your area to guide you through the tough times.
If you or your spouse decides to divorce, choose an amicable path, such as a "Collaborative Divorce." The adversarial route will cause many long-term problems. Remember, you once loved this person. Perhaps you still do. Divorce respectfully so that you can both heal and move on.
© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2020