Common sense suggests that most divorces are years in the making.
You picture a couple that marries young and happy then gradually drifts apart. Months and years of arguments ensue. Suddenly, they wake up one day and come to the realization that they’re miserable, their marriage is broken, and the only answer is to divorce.
However, research indicates many divorcing couples actually decide to call it quits on relationships that are seemingly perfectly fine.
The Marriage Foundation analyzed data on 22,000 men and women in the United Kingdom who were living as a couple, either married or unmarried. They interviewed each person at least twice over a period of four years. Of those who eventually divorced, 60 percent described their marriages as happy one year prior to breaking up.
Brigham Young University Assistant Professor Spencer James, who helped with the study, has conducted similar research in the United States and has come to the same conclusion. He noted that these findings are significant for a couple different reasons.
First, it seems many couples are deciding to end marriages prematurely.
“Many of these marriages could probably be salvaged with some help and with a reasonable amount of support,” James said. “Now that support could come in a variety of different ways, be it marriage education classes or funneling resources to help alleviate some of the socioeconomic inequalities that we see so much of in this country.”
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there are potential ramifications for children.
“The ending of a low-conflict marriage is actually worse than a high-conflict one,” James said, “because in the case of these children – absent any other clear possibilities – they often conclude that the divorce was their fault or that relationships are simply unstable, which in turn can make it difficult to trust people.”
So if these couples are so content then why are they deciding divorce is necessary? That’s tough to say as there are as many excuses to get divorced as there are people divorced.
James suggests it’s likely largely due largely in part to socioeconomic pressures. Almost all of the growth in the divorce rate over the past couple decades has been among those who are comparatively uneducated. James said the divorce rate for those without a college degree ranges from 50 to 70 percent.
People don’t even see [marriage] as a permanent thing.
“Part of it may simply be the uncertainty associated with educational, racial, and financial or other types of inequality,” James said, “and this uncertainty in turn leads to a variety of other struggles that often culminate in divorce.
“We don’t often think about it in these terms, but I personally firmly believe few things would improve family life and the stability of marriage more than addressing these systematic inequalities.”
Additionally, there are likely cultural norms factoring in. It seems, at least anecdotally, that the idea of the permanency of marriage is dissolving. More and more, marriage is treated as a life stage to pass through. There is even a trend among younger generations to enter into “starter marriages” – marriages that have an end in sight before they even begin.
“People don’t even see it as a permanent thing,” James said. “It’s just something useful and something to do in the moment, and we’ll see what happens in the future.”
It almost seems as though consumer culture has infiltrated societal attitudes towards marriage with spouses adopting a trade-up, trade-in mentality. Unfortunately, while that mindset might be beneficial for the economy, society is more likely to thrive when romantic relationships are stable and characterized by a high degree of commitment to each other.
Cordell & Cordell Principal Partner Joe Cordell points out that the other sad reality, and one that many people fail to realize until after their divorce, is that the grass is not always greener on the other side.
“After meeting someone new, many will suddenly decide that their marriage is terrible when that is not necessarily the reality of their situation,” Mr. Cordell said. “They think they have found something better, but most of the time that turns out not to be the case, and now they must also deal with the financial complications of divorce.”
There are certainly unsalvageable marriages, and in those instances divorce is unavoidable. However, the decision should never be made haphazardly and should always be considered a last resort.
Unfortunately, James said, it appears society has it all backwards.
“Usually, if you’re happy in one marriage you should stick with it,” James said. “Of course, the opposite of that – when adults stay in high-conflict marriages – is the worst thing for kids. Kids tend to do better when high-conflict marriages end. The unfortunate thing that this research shows is that the vast majority of marriages that end are not high-conflict.”