Why Do People Divorce?

By Mike DuBose

With divorce rates soaring to roughly 50% in the US (60% for couples more than 60 years old), one can’t help but wonder, “Why does America, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, also have some of the highest divorce rates? Why do so many couples go from being passionately in love to, in many cases, hating each other?” In this third segment of our series on marriage, we’ll explore some of the many reasons behind this divorce boom. Although every marriage is different (whether it’s a happy one, or a troubled relationship headed for divorce), there are some underlying themes that generally indicate a marriage may be in danger.

Many couples “start out emphasizing the positive aspect of the marriage commitment, and then over time the focus shifts to the negative. They take their mutual love and devotion for granted as the passion and lust fade, and the rules and constraints take center stage—and these rules and constraints end up seeming all the more binding and unfair in comparison,” wrote Mark White, Ph.D. in a Psychology Today article.

Picture this: a happy young couple on their wedding day. They were voted “most in love” by their high school classmates, and it’s not hard to see why. During the ceremony, the groom sheds tears of happiness as his beaming bride walks down the aisle, and they both giggle as they feed each other wedding cake. They are surrounded by people who care about them and the event is filled with fun, food, drink, and dancing; it is truly a public declaration of love and devotion. Family and friends wish the couple off to happiness as they ride away in a classic 1957 Chevrolet convertible. Everyone fondly remembers the romantic, joyous occasion for years afterward!

Now, fast forward 20 years.The once-blissful marriage is now a mess: husband and wife scowl at each other, embroiled in yet another heated argument. They slam doors, call each other names, and find no pleasure in each other’s company or even in talking to each other. They can’t seem to reach an agreement on anything and often fight in front of their children, who are hurt by their bickering. Their marriage ceremony, where they promised God to live together “for better or for worse, until death do us part,” seems like an event in a different lifetime, and one they wish they could erase from memory! One day, they’ve finally had enough, and become yet another a divorce statistic, filled with regrets and a lot of emotional damage.

The pain of divorce spreads far beyond just the former husband and wife, radiating out to friends, children, relatives, and even the workplace. Friends and family may feel pressured to “take sides” with the halves of the former couple. Some of the resulting stress and sadness even harms other marriages. In fact, according to the stress scale developed by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, divorce is the second most stressful event that a person can experience in life.

Some unhappy couples avoid divorcing but continue to live together due to their spiritual beliefs, financial necessity, or the fear that they will hurt their children if they divorce. Others believe that a stale marriage is just part of getting old. They become more like roommates or friends, staying in the same house but leading different lives. They have abandoned their marriage although they are still living together, often sleeping in separate bedrooms.

Toxic marriages and divorce both cause stress in the people who experience them, harming them not only emotionally, but also physically: severe, prolonged stress has been proven to contribute to heart disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety, arthritis, and blood pressure, to name a few. Danish researchers have also found that people who frequently engage in heated arguments are two to three times more likely to die in middle age. Psychologically, many unhappily married people or divorcees become bogged down with questions like, “What if I had married my high school or college sweetheart instead of the person I chose as a mate?” Their regrets, bitterness, and unhappiness make it very difficult to move on with their lives. 

When marriages go south, it’s common for one party to tell the other, “I just don’t want to be married anymore!” The truth, though, is that the problem has been brewing long before anyone makes that proclamation. Just as every person is unique, so is every marriage (and divorce). Each marriage has its own unique strengths, stressors, and weaknesses, and the problems one couple experiences may be vastly different from those others in their demographic group. Thus, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what causes marriages to fail, since it’s different for every scenario. However, research on the most common issues leading to divorces sheds light on some of the more common risk factors.

In 2014, the Austin Institute for the Study of Marriage and Culture published a report called Relationships in America. For the section of the study addressing marriage and divorce, the researchers surveyed 4,000 divorced men and women ranging in age from 18 to 60. They asked respondents to choose as many items as they wanted from a list of 17 reasons that led to their divorce, and the most commonly chosen were:

  • Infidelity (by either party): 37%
  • Spouse unresponsive to needs: 32%
  • Grew tired of making a poor match work: 30%
  • Spouse’s immaturity: 30%
  • Emotional abuse: 29%
  • Different financial priorities/spending habits: 24%
  • Alcohol and/or other drug abuse: 23%

The frequency with which certain reasons were selected varied based on the respondents’ gender. According to the study’s authors, women generally cited more reasons than men in their responses. Females were most likely to say that the following were the causes of their divorce:

  • Emotional abuse or neglect: 37%
  • Spouse unresponsive to needs: 34%
  • Spouse’s immaturity: 31%
  • Alcohol or other drug use patterns: 29%
  • Grew tired of making a poor match work: 29%

Males, on the other hand, most frequently listed the following factors as the reasons their marriages ended:

  • Grew tired of making a poor match work: 32%
  • Spouse’s romantic or sexual relationship with someone else: 30%
  • Spouse unresponsive to needs: 30%
  • Spouse’s immaturity: 28%
  • Very different financial priorities or spending patterns: 24%

Many of these factors are echoed in studies from other researchers. According to the Journal of Family Issues, University of Pennsylvania researchers Paul Amato and Denise Priviti’s research on divorce found that “infidelity was the most commonly reported cause, followed by incompatibility, drinking or drug use, and growing apart.” A study by the National Fatherhood Initiative reinforced these trends as well. “‘Lack of commitment’ of one or both spouses was the most frequently selected reason, followed by ‘too much conflict and arguing’ and ‘infidelity.’ ‘Married too young,’ ‘unrealistic expectations,’ ‘lack of preparation,’ and ‘inequality’ were among the other frequently selected reasons,” the group’s report said.

Across all of these studies, some common themes stand out: infidelity, incompatibility, emotional abuse or neglect, substance abuse, and financial disagreements. Very few marriages fail due to just one factor, and the reasons can often feed off one another. As someone who has been married for 43 years and has seen numerous others go through marital problems (including my parents, who divorced when I was young), I know that all marriages, no matter how good or bad, have their “ups and downs.” (Fortunately, although there is always room for improvement and although we have travelled down some of the toxic roads mentioned in this article, my wife and I have a happy marriage!) In our lifetimes, most of us will either experience or witness friends and family suffer from some of the main causes of divorce. Let’s examine these causes in more detail:

Infidelity: Although a 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 91% of Americans think that infidelity is morally wrong, a May 2015 article by psychiatrist Richard Friedman of Weill Cornell Medical College declared that “the number of Americans who actually cheat on their partners is rather substantial: Over the past two decades, the rate of infidelity has been pretty constant at around 21 percent for married men, and between 10 to 15 percent for married women, according to the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago’s independent research organization, NORC.” In his study of Finnish twins, University of Queensland psychologist Brendan Zietsch located a gene that, when mutated, predicted higher likelihood of promiscuity in women. Other studies assert that up to one quarter of men are unfaithful, theorizing that males may cheat because they are biologically programmed to breed.

The National Academy of Science published a fascinating study in 2014 that examined 8 million people who had registered with a dating website. The study found that most men made major life changes as they approached significant birthdays (like 29, 39, 49, and 59). At these ages, men were more apt to act out on fantasies or experiment. Research also shows that people who have cheated on past partners or their current spouse and/or had a parent who cheated on their spouse are at a higher risk of having an affair. Spending long hours in the workplace and frequent travel without one’s spouse also increased the risk of infidelity. The greatest risk factor for having an affair, however, was “dissatisfaction with the relationship.” Individuals who scored high on tests measuring kindness, humility, care for others’ feelings, dependability, self-discipline, risk aversion, and happiness in their marriages were least likely to cheat on their spouses. Spirituality also reduces risk of divorce; couples who attend church regularly are more likely to stay together.  

Marrying too young: People’s ages when they marry (and, correspondingly, their maturity levels) make a significant impact on how prepared they are for the lifetime commitment of marriage. With some scientists now saying that the human brain doesn’t develop fully until a person reaches their late 20s (or even early 30s), there is a huge potential for emotional growth and personality changes in the age ranges in which people traditionally get married. As Business Insider writer Jake Baer reported about sociologist Arielle Kuperberg’s 2014 study of over 7,000 married Americans, “Age turned out to be a major predictor of divorce: People who married at age 18 had a 60% divorce rate. People who married at age 23 had about a 30% divorce rate. That's a 50% reduction in divorce, thanks to just waiting five more years.” As the Austin Institute study showed, immaturity is a huge factor behind divorce, and getting married too young may set up some couples for problems if one partner matures faster than the other.

Not spending enough quality time with each other: According to a 2014 Wall Street Journal article on marriage research by Northwestern University psychology professor Eli Finkel, “Our central claim is that Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality—but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership.” Sociologists Jeffrey Dew and Bradford Wilcox came to a similar conclusion, noting that spouses who spent time alone talking about their lives or doing an activity together were 3.5 times more likely to have a happy marriage. Unfortunately, there are only so many hours in a day, and the body’s mental and physical stamina is limited, so husbands and wives often fail to make a conscious effort to spend quality time together. According to Dew, however, Americans today are spending about 25% less time alone with their spouses than they did in 1975.

Why are spouses becoming so isolated from one another? There are many reasons, including: working long hours and prioritizing careers; committing children to too many activities; being involved in too many charitable programs (including church); spending too much time on hobbies; attending sporting events; volunteering; hanging out with friends; excessive Internet and television use; chatting on Facebook and by text message; and the list goes on and on! Frequently, we find ourselves doing so much with so many people (because we can’t say no!) that we simply do not have the time to spend with our spouse or make marriage a top priority. When both spouses work and have children, it’s a frantic race to get up in the morning and get everyone ready, travel in rush hour traffic, do a good job at work, come home and cook, race around to children’s events, and keep up the house. Oftentimes, at the end of the day, there is simply no energy left for an intimate relationship or quality time in the marriage. Such busy lifestyles don’t let the mind and body rest and repair itself, and when these systems are stressed, symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, lack of concentration, and headaches surface. People are more likely to change their eating habits, increase alcohol and other drug abuse, experience mood changes, lose interest in people and things, and become anxious when they are under stress. Either the relationship burns out over time, or the problems brought on by stress cause major rifts in the marriage, leading to divorce.

Selfishness: Many divorced individuals interviewed for research purposes reported that the other spouse was selfish. Placing one’s own desires over a spouse’s can be destructive, according to psychologist and family therapist Val Farmer, Ph.D. He defined “selfishness” as using control, manipulation, jealousy, possessiveness, demands, and abuse in order to get one’s way (and, in milder forms, as a lack of consideration and respect). When one spouse is selfish, it makes the other partner feel unimportant, neglected, unloved, and less willing to give wholeheartedly to the relationship.

Lack of emotional control: It’s important for married couples to be honest about how they are feeling. However, uncontrollable anger, physical and mental abuse, hateful looks and body language, nagging, neglect, and being rigid and judgmental are all serious dangers to any marriage. When one spouse repeatedly says hurtful things, speaks his or her mind without thinking about the consequences, or negatively compares his or her partner to another person, it goes beyond sharing one’s feelings and becomes emotional abuse. Such unhealthy relationships create hurt, insecurity, and withdrawal; weaken communications between partners; and lead to an inability to solve problems, work together as a team, or share constructive, loving thoughts with one another. Worse yet, the receiving partner is often provoked into a counterattack, and the emotional abuse becomes mutual. These toxic relationships are not healthy for anyone involved, and children of the marriage may become scarred and insecure from witnessing the emotional barrages their parents fling at each other.

Marrying the wrong person (or for the wrong reasons): We’ve all heard people complain that the person they were dating changed once they got married. It may have seemed like a good match at the time, but as the partners got to know each other, they realized they had chosen the wrong mate. Some work for years trying to make the bad match work. It’s also possible to get married for the wrong reasons, including: your friends are getting married, so you feel like you should, too; to please your parents, who are pressuring you to get married; because it seems like the logical “next step” in the relationship; peer pressure; because you like your spouse’s family and want to be a part of it; to escape your own family and become independent; and for financial security. Researchers refer to the above as “immature love,” and unions built on these reasons are bound to run into problems as the partners age and start to wonder, “Is this all there is?”

Financial disagreements: Surprisingly, many of couples enter marriage without having a good discussion about how they view financial matters such as spending habits, savings, and budget development. However, as Andrea Coombes reported in an April 2015 Wall Street Journal article, “Money is one of the biggest sources of marital discord—and it can be one of the toughest to resolve. That’s because when couples argue about how to spend money, they’re not just debating the issue at hand, such as how much they can put on the credit card each month, or whether they can really afford that big vacation. They’re giving voice to subconscious anxieties that even they may not be aware of—and bumping up against the unarticulated fears of their partners.”

Financial arguments can have their roots in a variety of issues, like one of the spouses being raised in poverty; insecurity stemming from the couple not saving or spending wildly; being too conservative or cheap with money; hiding financial accounts or withholding access to the assets (not disclosing passwords, etc.); and disagreeing on how much to allocate to charitable giving or whether to financially support elderly parents, children, or relatives. Often, there is not a team approach to developing a budget and monitoring spending habits. In some cases, maintaining separate checking and savings accounts can also breed distrust.

Based on recent surveys by credit monitoring company Experian, the top three financial stressors to respondents’ marriages were planning for future financial needs; covering current financial expenses; and getting out of debt. Other studies point to major problems when one or both of the spouses place materialism as more important than their relationship. This includes the wedding itself: in an October 2014 Wall Street Journal article, author Brett Arends reports that expensive weddings can spell trouble for the couple. He references a study by Emory University economics professors Andrew Francis and Hugo Mialon, who found that couples whose weddings cost more than $20,000 were 60% more likely to divorce than those who spent less.

Interference from outside parties: One of the hidden reasons for divorce is when outside influences (such as friends, parents, or other family members) wield an excessive amount of power over the marriage. Sometimes, parents wrongfully believe that it is their right (or responsibility) to control their adult children, impose their values on the couple, or relive their own lives through their adult children, grandchildren, or new in-laws. Their interference blocks the new couple from “becoming one” and living their own lives.

Relatives often swoop in to give newly married couples advice, suggest where they should live, and tell them how to raise their children, what jobs to pursue, and even how to act. They will sometimes drop by unexpectedly or enter the couple’s home without approval, violating their sense of privacy, and may push the couple to take part in activities with them rather than spend time with each other. If their relative has financial problems, they bail them out rather than letting the couple figure it out themselves. It’s particularly sad when parents push their adult children to have grandchildren when the couple is not yet ready.

Even worse is when one spouse’s parents do not approve of his or her chosen partner. They send quiet (or overt) signals through body language and verbal slights, telling the new in-law that he or she is unwanted or unworthy. When the new in-law is not welcomed into the family as a real member, it creates stress within the marriage, especially if the spouse whose parents are intruding does not place his or her partner first and set the parents straight.

Friends can also be a negative influence, especially if one of the spouses shares intimate details about the marriage with them. Research shows that individuals with divorced friends have a higher risk of divorcing themselves, perhaps because their friends give them advice inspired by their own failed relationships.

Job dissatisfaction: Most people spend about one-third of their lives sleeping and one-third (or more) in the workplace. Employment plays many roles in our lives, including: fostering a sense of meaning; serving as a way to earn a living and pay the bills; offering a social network and support system where many of our friends are located; and creating a feeling of accomplishment. For a small group of Americans, work is something that gets us out of bed in the morning as we look forward to what the day will bring. However, many more people are not engaged in their work, dislike their company, superiors, and/or colleagues, and view the job as “just a paycheck.” They might be pushed to perform at unrealistic levels, verbally abused, or bullied. For those whose jobs don’t fit into their passions in life, the workplace is a scene of stress and drudgery.

Unfortunately, most people have difficulties separating their home and professional lives. Personal problems find their way into the workplace, and stress caused by job dissatisfaction can impair marital relationships. And as Tammy Worth noted in an article for CNN.com, if you are unhappy with your employment, the level of unhappiness is significant, and you feel powerless to change the conditions, your feelings of dissatisfaction can lead to depression, which can impair the marriage.

Lack of physical intimacy: According to a February 2014 Wall Street Journal article by Elizabeth Bernstein, “It is normal for happy couples to see their sex life diminish—or possibly even disappear—over time. And it is possible to bring it back. No sex isn't a problem if both partners don't mind, of course. But that is rarely the case.”  Physical intimacy creates bonding hormones in the brain and strengthens feelings of togetherness in couples, but problems arise when the halves of a couple have different expectations for their intimate life. Some partners do not realize that having an intimate married life requires an investment of time and attention—in most cases, one cannot just “flip a switch” to make the other desire intimacy. Others “let themselves go” and do not make attempts to dress up or look attractive for their mate any more, which can also put a damper on their partner’s attraction.

When couples do not have honest discussions about the topic, or when one spouse has different intimacy expectations, resentment and/or avoidance can occur. In some cases, one spouse might commit infidelity, rationalizing that his or her physical needs aren’t being met within the marriage. Some couples simply give up on nurturing romance as they age, thinking that losing the intimate connection is just part of growing old. Others experience physical difficulties that prevent intimacy but do not seek treatment.

Children: Starting a family changes the dynamics of a marriage and can be a very stressful and exhausting event. Hormones rage during and after pregnancy, and many times, the sleeplessness and effort of raising a child causes couples to lose the intimacy they once shared. The attention and focus of the relationship changes from each other to the children. Family and child psychologist John Rosemond, Ph.D. has frequently noted in his columns that many parents inappropriately prioritize their children above their marital relationship. Some couples have children too early and too close together for their marriage to have time to mature, and instead focus nearly all of their energies on the children. They fall into bed at night exhausted! Worse yet, some couples with weak relationships inaccurately believe that having a child will strengthen their marriage, whereas the stress usually makes matters worse. Sometimes, one partner wants to have children while the other is either unprepared to become a parent then or doesn’t want children at all. Disagreements about having or parenting children can produce major problems within a marriage that often need to be sorted out with the help of a professional.

Retirement: To most people, retirement sounds like a dream. After decades of work, they look forward to spending unlimited “time off” with friends and family, visiting new places, and taking up hobbies. What many fail to realize, however, is that retirement requires extensive planning and preparation—or else that “dream” can become a nightmare of boredom and depression due to a lack of purpose in life. Many retirees face the added burden of financial insecurity, demanding caregiver responsibilities, and other life stresses. In fact, in a 2011 study by the Harvard School of Public Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and National Public Radio, one in four retirees said that their lives were worse than before they retired. Some couples also find that, while they could tolerate each other when one or both of them was working, being together 24/7 after retirement is “too much!”

With these stressors at least partially at fault, the divorce rate amongst retirees has mushroomed to about 60%, a percentage higher than the general population (which has nearly doubled itself over the last two decades). When one of the spouses has a chronic disease, then the divorce rate often escalates higher!

Not investing in the marriage: The overarching factor that can complicate all of these issues is lack of effort. If a couple is deeply committed to one another, they may be able to work through differences like financial problems (or even infidelity) with the help of a qualified counselor who can relate to their situation. However, if one or both spouses are unwilling to compromise or even listen to their partner’s views, the likelihood of the marriage succeeding plummets. In their conversations with divorcees, the National Fatherhood Initiative found that “only around a third of the respondents of each gender apparently thought that both ex-spouses had worked hard enough.” However, underscoring the differences and conflicts in these relationships, “Sixty-two percent of both the ex-husbands and ex-wives said they wished their spouses had worked harder, and 35 percent of the ex-husbands and 21 percent of the ex-wives said they wished they, themselves, had worked harder,” according to the study. With such differing viewpoints, it’s not hard to believe that the couples couldn’t see eye to eye on other important issues!

The bottom line: Through many different studies and surveys, researchers have identified some of the most common factors that divorced people cite as reasons for the dissolution of their marriages. But how can you protect your marriage from these problems and avoid divorce? The good news, according to marriage therapists and researchers, is that relationships can flourish today like never before...but it takes both partners working in unison toward a common goal. Remember: No one truly “wins” in a divorce. It’s never too late to give your marriage—and yourself—another chance at happiness!

Look for the final installment of this series for steps you can take to build a strong, happy, and healthy marriage. To read the first two installments, including a marriage assessment that couples can take to measure their happiness, visit www.mikedubose.com.

About the Authors: Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at katie@dubosegroup.com.

Mike DuBose, a University of South Carolina graduate, is a former licensed counselor, a field instructor with USC’s graduate school, and the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of four debt-free corporations, including Columbia Conference Center, Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, and DuBose Fitness Center. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, health, and personal published articles.

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.

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