Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Changing Marriage and Divorce Trends

New marital trends emerge as couples have more choices today than ever before.

A few weeks ago, Pamela Paul wrote an article that appeared in the New York Times called, "The Un-divorced." The article covered the topic of what I call the "quiet trend" of people who divorce emotionally but not legally.

I refer to these trends as "quiet" because the census bureau can't track these numbers as easily as they can the filings of marriage certificates and divorce decrees. These trends go untalked about and, until now, largely unnoticed for years. These trends apply to those who avoid divorce as well as those who avoid marriage (but who live together and/or have children).

"Undivorcing" been going on for many years to some degree but is getting attention recently because of the increase in numbers of couples going this route due to tough financial times. With unemployment rates high, housing values low and retirement accounts diminished and depleted, people simply can't afford to divorce right now.

Perhaps these couples live in separate rooms in the same house or they live in separate states; they remain amicable or they never want another thing to do with the other; they share children or they have none.

What these "undivorced" cases do have in common is that they no longer want to uphold the vows they exchanged on their wedding day, but they stop short of going through the legal process of marital dissolution.

Since Ms. Paul's article came out, there seems to have been an explosion of media interest in this topic. The Today Show on MSNBC, Weekend Today at NBC and The Early Show on CBS have all either covered the topic or made pitches to cover it.… *

* (I was honored to be interviewed for this CBS segment)

In my practice, and around the nation, I have seen increasing numbers of couples who cannot afford to divorce have no choice but to stay in the same house.

In some cases, those on the brink of divorce have turned and faced each other and have made the decision to work through their problems. These lucky ones often come out on the other side with a stronger, deeper marriage than they had prior to their disagreement, betrayal or crisis.

For many, however, a bad marriage with no way out can make life at home can be a living hell.

In September of 2009, I wrote an article for my column in entitled, "I Can't Afford to Leave (Financially), But I Can't Afford to Stay (Emotionally)." In this article, I provide some top "dos and don'ts" for those who want to go their separate ways but who can't due to the down economy.…

Of course, there are other things to consider besides money when you want to leave your spouse but you can't.

It's especially important for contentious couples who are parents to think about what they are modeling for their children regardless of whether they stay in the same house, live apart but do things together or never speak to the other spouse again.

Ask yourself, "what are my children going to learn from me/us about men? About women? About conflict resolution? About marriage? About divorce? About life?

Other questions to ask yourself or your spouse when "undivorcing," (that is, not continuing to act and feel married but not formally divorcing) include:

a) Will this be confusing for me, my spouse, my children, family or friends?

b) Am I/are we opening ourselves up to financial problems such as being liable for debt, lawsuits, medical bills, the other may incur?

c) Will emotions become calmer or more heightened as time passes?

d) Are there other legal problems that may come about if I remain legally bound to my spouse?

e) Can we move on with our lives (i.e. get into new relationships)? And how will I feel if I get into a new relationship? If my spouse gets into a new relationship?

f) What other expectations will we/should we have of each other?

While I completely understand the resistance to spending thousands of dollars to undo this legal contract, there are benefits to divorce such as getting clarity and closure that can come when the custody arrangements have been made and all the papers have been signed.

We live in changing times. Keeping up with the Jones's is not as important as it used to be. Individuals, couples and families are realizing that they can construct whatever household configuration that works for them without the outdated social pressures to conform.

My guess is that, for better or worse, we will continue to see a wider variety of family and marriage. When faced with a troubled marriage, there are no good options but my hope is that the trends will be created with care and forethought rather than for immediate gratification at the expense of others.

I invite you to visit my website dedicated to defining, tracking and normalizing this movement:

No part of this publication may be reproduced without the express written permission of the author. Failure to comply with these terms may expose you to legal action and damages for copyright infringement.