Broken Hearts and Deal Breakers: Reasons Why People Divorce
What do studies say about the reasons people give for divorcing?
Posted April 9, 2017
Why do people divorce? And what do people say about why they divorced? Those are two different questions, and I am going to focus on the latter — what people report about their splits.[i] That is also a simpler question to answer. The five reports I mention rely on a variety of methods and types of samples, yet yield similar answers across different samples, methods, and eras.
Sociologists Amato and Previti (2003)[ii] used data from the “Marital Instability Over the Life Course” project (Booth, Amato, & Johnson, 1998). These data are based on a national survey of people in 1980 and 1997. Those who divorced were asked, “What do you think caused the divorce?” The open-ended responses were coded into categories, with the top reasons for divorcing being:
- Drinking or drug use
- Growing apart
In 2001, a group of family scholars conducted a large, random, statewide phone survey in Oklahoma.[iii] I was part of this team. We interviewed more than 2,000 people and asked those who had been divorced to choose among nine “major” reasons for divorcing, the list having been developed by the researchers ahead of time based on our knowledge of the literature. The top three reasons people gave were:
- A lack of commitment
- Too much conflict or arguing
- Infidelity or extramarital affairs
These reasons were followed by “getting married too young,” “little or no helpful premarital preparation,” and “financial problems or economic hardship.” The reports of marrying too young likely overlap with the general category of incompatibility, since this is one of the risks of marrying very young: People often do not know themselves or what they expect and desire in a mate at age 18. Amato and Previti presented findings in support of this point, finding that incompatibility was more commonly reported as a reason for divorce among those who had married young than those who had married when a little older.
Infidelity is on both lists covered so far (and every list coming up). Clearly, that is a sub-category of commitment problems, so commitment is a major theme in both reports I’ve mentioned thus far. For some, infidelity is the main reason their marriage ended; for others, infidelity is something that happened after years of other problems, such as nasty conflicts, incompatibility, and substance abuse.
I Blame You
Amato and Previti found that many more people blamed their ex for their marriage ending (33 percent) than themselves (5 percent). In our report on the Oklahoma survey, we noted that most people (73 percent) believed that they had worked hard enough on their marriage, but also that their ex-spouse should have worked harder (74 percent). As in Amato and Previti, we see that most people who have divorced believe their ex was more to blame.
Mostly, people don’t blame themselves for divorcing. This is a good example of the point I made at the outset: There are many complex reasons why marriages fail, including characteristics of the individuals, family history (growing up), poverty, mental health issues, the way the relationship developed (too fast or too slow, timing and sequence, etc.), communication ability, attachment dynamics, individual misbehavior, and so on. In contrast, the reasons people give for divorcing are pretty straightforward—while the actual causes can be complex, most people distill it down to failings on their partner’s side of the equation.
Reasons for Divorce and Final Straws
A study from our lab (Scott, Rhoades, Stanley, Allen, and Markman, 2013)[iv] used a multi-year, longitudinal sample of marrying couples who participated in premarital preparation through their religious organizations between 1995 and 2001. After following this sample for many years, the team contacted those who had divorced and interviewed the 52 people who responded about their reasons, using the same list as Johnson and colleagues. These data are less representative than other samples here, but what the study lacked in sample size may be made up for by depth of information. Our team asked people not only the major cause of divorce, but also about the “final straw.” The top reported reasons for divorce were:
- Lack of commitment
Pretty familiar, right? And the most common final straws were:
- Domestic violence
- Substance abuse
Scott and colleagues made an important distinction in that the reasons why a marriage declines, leading to an end, can be different from what finally breaks the back of one continuing. And when it comes to deciding a marriage is over, women are more likely than men to say it’s done (found by Amato & Previti, and many others). In both Amato and Previti’s studies, and in the report by Johnson and colleagues, women were more likely than men to report a marriage ending because of abuse. At a talk years ago, Amato noted that, on average, many marriages end when women become fed up with men behaving badly. Clearly, plenty of women behave badly also, as many divorced men will attest. Nevertheless, there is a common scenario in which one partner (more often the man) exhibits behavior that the other partner (more often the woman) finally decides is too much to bear. In his talk, Amato described the same deal breakers listed by Scott and colleagues as final straws. Similarly, Johnson and colleagues (2002) reported the top reasons men and women gave for divorcing, and found that the answers were mostly the same, except that women were far more likely (44 percent) than men (8 percent) to report that domestic violence was a major reason for divorcing.
In 2004, AARP put out a report based on a large, national survey of older adults, age 40 and up, on reasons for the divorces they experienced in their 40s, 50s, or 60s. This group reported these top reasons for divorcing:
- Abuse (verbal, physical, or emotional)
- Differing values and lifestyles
The runner-up was “simply falling out of love/no obvious problems.” So an older cohort, who now account for a lot of divorces,[vi] give reasons similar to other reports covered here.
Hawkins, Willoughby, and Doherty published a study in 2012[vii] that reported reasons for divorce in the only study I cover here that was not retrospective. As part of the extensive work that Bill Doherty, Steven Harris, and colleagues have been doing about the possibility of reconciliations after filing — but before finalizing— divorce, the study by Hawkins and colleagues reports reasons given for divorcing within a sample of 886 individual parents who were in the process of divorcing. These parents were involved in mandated parenting classes as part of the legal system in Hennepin County, Minnesota. They found the two most common reasons for divorcing to be:
- Growing apart
- Not being able to talk together
The people who were least likely to entertain putting the brakes on their divorce reported growing apart, differences in tastes, and money problems. In an interesting twist, given the other findings noted here, abuse and infidelity were not reasons for divorcing that were associated with how much interest someone had in potentially reconciling the marriage.
Having My Baby: Or Not
There is a lot of consistency across these studies, but might other reasons be emerging as the deal breakers in the current era? While not a study, Vicki Larson (@OMGchronicles) recently tweeted about the observations of attorneys in a New York Post piece suggesting that conflicts over having children had become one of the biggest reasons for divorce.
Both I (@DecideOrSlide) and Nicholas Wolfinger (@nickwolfinger) tweeted that we did not know of research supporting this point. (Great science proceeds on Twitter. Follow me.) Nevertheless, Larson and I agreed that this is likely to be a growing reason for divorcing. I believe this is likely. First, I think people are more likely than ever before to slide into important relationships — including marriage and parenting — without making clear decisions about a future together. That means there will be a growing number of relationships moving into marriage that are poorly vetted.
Second, incompatibility has often been given as a reason for divorcing, and different family aspirations could easily become a major driver in this category, as having children has become less of a default expectation in marriage. Whether or not two spouses were likely to be good parents, or attempt to be, most married couples in the past did have children. Now, like everything else, to have children or not is much less a given and much more a (potential) negotiation (when not a slide).
It Takes Two to Tango
While no one can anticipate all the changes and circumstances that will impact a marriage in the future, singles interested in marriage would do well to make the best choices they can at the start in preparing for a successful marriage. (See more here.) And those who are married and happy who want to avoid divorce in the future have ways to strengthen and build on what they have. (See more here.) We all know that it takes two people to make a good marriage last. One person cannot make it happen without the other person also being willing to invest and grow. As mentioned already, it’s easiest after the fact for each individual to believe that their ex failed the dance. But to make a marriage last, it’s going to work best if each spouse is focused on the mantra my colleague Howard Markman and I push: “Do your part.”[viii]
I am sure there are other studies bearing on this list of reasons for divorce, but it is obvious that there is a convergence in reasons people give for their marriages ending. The individual stories will be varied and complex, but the basic themes remain—broken hearts and deal breakers.
Follow me on Twitter: @DecideOrSlide
[i] This is not intended to be a systematic review. It is a brief review based on the studies I know about.
[ii] Amato, P. R., & Previti, D. (2003). People's reasons for divorcing. Journal of Family Issues, 24, 602-626.
[iii] Johnson, C. A., Stanley, S. M., Glenn, N. D., Amato, P. A., Nock, S. L., Markman, H. J., & Dion, M. R. (2002). Marriage in Oklahoma: 2001 baseline statewide survey on marriage and divorce (S02096 OKDHS). Oklahoma City, OK: Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
[iv] Scott, S. B., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Allen, E. S., & Markman, H. J. (2013) Reasons for divorce and recollections of premarital intervention: Implications for improving relationship education. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 2(2), 131-145.
[v] The work was conducted by Knowledge Networks, which is typically a sign of the use of excellent survey methods.
[vi] Brown, S. L., & Lin, I. (2012). The gray divorce revolution: Rising divorce among middle-aged and older adults, 1990-2010. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences & Social Sciences, 67(6), 731-741.
[vii] Hawkins, Willoughby, & Doherty (2012). Reasons for divorce and openness to marital reconciliation. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 53, 453–463.; See also Doherty, W. J., Harris, S. M., & Wickel Didericksen, K. (2016) A typology of attitudes toward proceeding with divorce among parents in the divorce process. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 57(1), 1-11.
[viii] For example, in our online program for couples at www.lovetakeslearning.com