Why Couples Divorce
As you well know, couples divorce for all sorts of reasons. Specific reasons for divorce tend to be as unique and individual as the couple themselves.
However, we know from recent self-report research of divorced couples that there are common ones that typically lead to divorce in the U.S.
Some of the top marital researchers came together and published a 2013 study which appeared in the journal, Couple and Family Psychology. They examined 18 divorced heterosexual couples plus 16 divorced heterosexual individuals (whose partners declined to participate).
Everyone in their sample had previously completed a well-known premarital counseling program before marriage but eventually divorced. On average, the couples had been divorced for 5 years when they participated in this study.
What follows is the top three reasons that emerged from marital research in the U.S.
I’ll share these plus my tips on how to avoid these pitfalls based on my many years of experience working with couples and families.
First off, without going into the nitty gritty of research methods it’s important to point out that studies like this require the researchers to define possible reasons for divorce from the outset and then give the couples a list of reasons to choose from.
This way they don’t end up with 100 different study participants and 99 different reasons for divorce.
Obviously, this would make the data hard to present to others and make it nearly impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions from it.
In the case of this study, the list of reasons for divorce was taken from a past survey that had been conducted a few years prior. They extracted a list of common reasons from that past study and gave their participants a choice among those reasons.
So, the people in this study (18 couples plus 16 individuals, all divorced) were given the following list of reasons and asked which of the following were a “major contributor to their divorce”:
- Lack of commitment
- Infidelity/extra-marital affairs
- Too much arguing or conflict
- Substance abuse
- Domestic violence
- Economic hardship
- Lack of support from family members
- Marrying too young
- Little or no premarital education
- Religious differences
Now, on to the big question! What were the top three reasons?
Reason #1: Lack of Commitment
While this one may seem obvious (because after all, by definition getting divorced means you’re no longer committed to stay in your marriage) let’s take a look at what this actually means.
This top reason for divorce – lack of commitment – was given by a whooping 75% of all study participants as well as at least one person in nearly 95% of the couples.
That is huge! But what did the couples actually mean when they chose “lack of commitment” as the top reason?
Well, luckily this study gave us some qualitative data (a fancy term data based on words and meaning, instead of numbers) to help answer that question.
According to one woman:
“I realized it was the lack of commitment on my part because I didn’t really feel romantic towards him. I always had felt more still like he was a friend to me.”
Ouch! Hopefully, her ex-husband is long over that marriage by now and has happily moved on.
Another participant said:
“It became insurmountable. It got to a point where it seemed like he was no longer really willing to work [on the relationship]. All of the stresses together and then what seemed to me to be an unwillingness to work through it any longer was the last straw for me.”
In this case, perhaps the divorce was a long time coming. I’d be curious if they tried marriage counseling or even a solid marriage self-help book, or if that “unwillingness to work through it” prevented that from ever happening.
Back to the results…
Reason #2: Infidelity
The second top reason listed for divorce was infidelity.
Nearly 60% of the study participants cited this reason as a major factor that contributed to their marriages ending. And roughly 89% of the couples had at least one partner choose this reason as a top factor. Those are big numbers!
Infidelity is certainly one of the hardest events to overcome in a marriage so it makes sense that so many of these divorced couples had dealt with it.
It seems that an extramarital relationship spelled the beginning of the end for many couples, who may have already been struggling, making that the final “nail in the coffin:”
“It was the final straw when he actually admitted to cheating on me. I kind of had a feeling about it, but, you know, I guess we all deny [because] we never think that the person you are married to or care about would do that to us.”
While for other couples, perhaps the marriage was effectively already over, making the decision to cheat a viable option for not just one but both partners:
“He cheated on me […] Then I met somebody else and did the same thing. […] And when he found out about it we both essentially agreed that it wasn’t worth trying to make it work anymore because it just hurt too bad.”
Who knows. Perhaps some partners wanted their infidelity to be discovered as a way to signal their desire to exit the marriage. I’ve certainly encountered that with my therapy couples.
Whatever the case, infidelity hit the overwhelming majority of these couples and ultimately helped end their unions.
Reason #3: Too Much Conflict
The final top reason for divorce was “too much conflict and arguing.”
Roughly 58% of the study participants chose this as a top reason for divorce and at least one partner cited this reason among 72% of the couples.
Indeed, it can be very hard (without professional help) to get a relationship back on the rails once communication has broken down and arguments happen more and more often.
Fighting with your partner frequently adds more stress to everyday life and makes it hard to accomplish life goals together. And perhaps most painful, it creates distance and gradually chips away at the emotional bond between you used to share.
Couples in this study were likely caught in long-standing patterns of relationship conflict and fighting that may have went on for months or years before they ultimately divorced. Consider this quote from one participant:
“We’d have an argument over something really simple and it would turn into just huge, huge fights […] and so our arguments never got better they only ever got worse.”
Other Top Reasons
The other top reasons reported for divorce were (including approximate percentages for all individual study participants):
- Marrying too young (45.%)
- Financial problems (38%)
- Substance abuse (35%)
- Domestic violence (24%)
The Final Straw
Along with finding the top reasons for divorce, the researchers of this study also looked at what they called “final straw” reasons for divorce.
Every marriage that ends likely has several contributing factors that lead to divorce. But here, the researchers wanted to see if there was one final event that acted as the “last nail in the coffin” before the couples called it quits.
Overall, not everyone could point to one final straw reason. And 0% of the couples who could had partners who agreed on the final straw reason. (Shocking, right?!)
However, but most were able to point to a final catalyst that sealed their decision to divorce. Approximately 69% of the participants could point to a final straw reason and at least one person in 89% of the couples could.
The top “final straws” were:
- Infidelity (24%)
- Domestic violence (21%)
- Substance abuse (12%)
Sadly, for a rare few couples the final straw reasons all collided with one another:
“[My ex-husband] and I both had substance abuse problems which led to infidelity […] which also led to domestic violence”.
The couples in this study were also asked “Who should have worked harder to save your marriage?”
Now, perhaps it’s just me and my dark sense of humor but I hear this question and my immediate thought is “Oh come on! What kind of answers do you think you’ll get with this question?” Haha! Like “what kind of self-actualized, ultra mature people had it in them to take the blame for their failed marriage??”
Ok, I digress. Back to the results…
Interestingly, my hunch was only partially right. For the most part, most participants pointed to their ex-spouses as the one who should have worked harder. Nearly 66% of men and 74% of women in the study felt this way.
But, (here comes those beautiful, mature, respectable relationship heroes and heroines that owned their shit!) 32% of men and 33% of women in this study agreed that they personally should have done more work to save the marriage.
So you’re saying there’s still a chance?! Why, yes dear. I should have worked harder.
Now THAT’S a major research finding if I’ve ever seen one!
Another noteworthy finding…
Who actually filed for divorce?
About 64% of participants reported it was the wife and about 25% reported it was the husband. It’s not clear what happened with that missing 11%.
The Takeaway Lessons
So if you’re reading this while married or engaged to be married, you’re probably wondering…
How do you avoid divorce?
In a nutshell, stay committed, don’t cheat, and stop fighting. That’s it. You’re welcome!
Ok, enough snark. In all seriousness, there are a few key lessons to learn from this research. My take on these lessons – based on my years of experience treating couples in relationship therapy – include three major ones.
#1: Get Professional Help. The Earlier, The Better.
Unfortunately, for many married couples that make it to therapy the problems have existed for months or even years before they’ve sought help.
Better late than never. But you will do yourself a huge favor by getting help early, at the first signs of trouble.
Or even better, getting premarital therapy. Couples in the study cited here reported feeling like they didn’t know enough about what to expect during marriage or how to handle problems that are common to most marriages.
For example, one participant stated:
“[I wish I had learned] that the biggest area in life in an ongoing relationship is knowing that things are going to come up that aren’t perfect. That after the wedding day, and the build up to the wedding day, real life is going to kick in and you have to really have some tools to deal with it.”
This is huge considering that the entire sample was composed of couples who had completed a premarital program before getting married.
The lesson here? Don’t just get “any” counseling before marriage.
Sure, in most cases something is better than nothing. But if I’m being very honest, I’ve worked with many couples over the years who said that they had premarital counseling (usually through their religious homes; I’m not knocking that, just stating a fact) and didn’t get much value from it.
I’m a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with nearly 14 years of experience combined with several years as a certified Prepare-Enrich facilitator.
That said, I can help you and your partner not just “complete a program” but truly dig deeper into your relationship before marriage, if needed. And even identify when premarital counseling may not actually be the best fit for you (for example, if there’s a substance abuse or anger-management issue that needs to be addressed first).
#2: Get Premarital Therapy Before You Set a Wedding Date
If you are engaged to be married and reading this in between sending out wedding invitations and meeting with your photographer…
Do. Not. Freak. Out.
I included this lesson as a takeaway from the current study because this research confirms what I’ve seen in couples I’ve personally worked with: That it’s really hard to turn back and re-evaluate your relationship once wedding plans get rolling.
If you’re in the wedding planning stages and feeling that way right now, this doesn’t mean you need to postpone or cancel your plans.
But at the very least, please do take the time to consider lessons from those who’ve been there and wish they’d known then what they now know.
It’s extremely common for couples to come to me and other premarital counselors as they’re planning their wedding. I’d say I hear from most couples about 3-6 months before the wedding as the time they would like to begin premarital counseling.
I’ve even had couples start premarital counseling with me so close to their wedding date that we have to finish the remainder of their sessions after the wedding. (Once, a couple got married and resumed therapy the following week. Talk about commitment!)
It’s important to note though that in the study cited here, 25% of the participants reported that there were already existing constraints while they were doing premarital counseling – factors that would have made it hard for them to delay their marriage plans or worse, cancel them altogether if they felt they were marrying the wrong partner.
The idea of “calling an audible” or leaving someone at the alter is the stuff of Hollywood. It makes for a great, dramatic moment in a movie but rarely happens that way in real life.
This is illustrated perfectly by the words of two study participants:
“It was one of those things where you’re like, ‘Well, I already have the dress. We’re already getting married. We already have all the people. Everything is already set up and we bought the house.’ And you just kind of think, ‘Well you know I’m sure things will get better.’ You see the red flags but you kind of ignore them.”
“I just didn’t have the guts to say, ‘You know what, I understand the dresses have been paid for. The churches have been booked. The invitations have gone out. But I don’t think I want to do this.’”
So again, better late than never. But if it’s still early in your relationship and you’re thinking about marriage at all, these results suggest that the ideal time for premarital counseling may be before engagement. Or at least before wedding plans officially begin.
#3: Take Time To Know Your Partner
The researchers in this study found that 42% of the participants and at least one person in 78% of the couples reported that they wish they’d known their ex-husband or ex-wife better before they married them.
Of course, for most couples it’s hard to imagine that your marriage will ever end in divorce when you feel so in love!
But you know the saying: Hindsight is 20/20. Painful, but often true.
For the couples in this study, it’s hard to say if taking more time to learn more about their partners would have truly made a difference and prevented later divorce. But many really felt that it would have. Some felt that they could have learned more about how to communicate with their particular partner or seen more possible red flags.
With more information, some even felt they could have avoided marrying their partner at all. Ouch! The truth hurts.
Indeed, nearly 31% of the participants expressed regret in not seeing “red flags” and choosing to end things before they made it official.
For instance, one woman said:
“I think the only information that could have [helped] would’ve been information that might have led me to not marry him.”
While another participant expressed:
“I probably wish that we would have had more premarital counseling and had somebody tell us we should not be getting married.”
On a related note, for my professional answer to the question “Will you tell us if you think we should not get married?” see my FAQs section on the Deciding to Marry page.
If you’re in need of relationship therapy, whether it’s with your partner or individually, I’ve got your back and I’m here to help! My approach will always be unique tailored to you and based on the best marital research available.
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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 & family psychology, 2(2), 131-145.