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  Divorce risk factors
by Graeme J. Davidson
, March, 2003

Census and other demographic statistics that point to a higher risk of marriage break-up include:

  • the end of the honeymoon period
  • saying 'I do' at a very young age
  • you or your partner's parents have split
  • either of you is previously divorced
  • cohabitation prior to marriage
  • no religious affiliation or practicing different faiths
  • belonging to an ethnic or cultural group with a higher than average number of break-ups (e.g. US Afro-Americans have a high rate while US Asians have a low rate of divorce)
  • pregnancy or children prior to marriage
  • low income or low educational level
  • child or spouse with a major disability
  • having a job working with a large number of the opposite gender, especially men working with women

The more of these factors that are involved, the greater the chance of marriage failure.

The seven-year itch applies to couples in the UK and Ireland as it is in the seventh year that marriage breakups are prevalent. However, for North America, Austalia, New Zealand and many other Western countries it should be renamed the two-year itch as it is at the end of the honeymoon period when many relationships disintegrate. Couples who are unable to cope with this normal phase of discontent may separate and file for divorce around the third and fourth years of marriage.

The popular courtship pattern of living together prior to marriage greatly increases the risk of divorce — by as much as 46% according to one study. Maybe this is because those who live together are unwilling to commit to the relationship as fully as a married couple. Sometimes when those that cohabit do marry this is in the hope that marriage will change the course of a relationship that is already heading for the rocks. And when they do hit the rocks, couples quickly point to their getting married as the excuse for the wreck. But much depends on each partner's attitude and how committed couples are to each other when they begin cohabiting. If it is seen as part of the betrothal process that will lead to a permanent committment, then the risk of divorce later is about the same as those who did not cohabit prior to marriage.

Those who practise different religious faiths often find that they face fundamental conflicts on key values how to live out their respective faiths on issues such as what faith to bring up their children, worship practises, dietary requirements and the role of each spouse. Those of strong religious convictions tend to be more committed to their marriage, which they will often view as sacred. Nevertheless, Christians do breakup at about the same rate as others in their community, but they often stick with each other for a longer period before they do. Many Catholics will seek annulment or seperate rather than divorce their partner.

A partner or child with a major physical or psychological disability can create stress in the home and strain a marriage relationship. For example, parents with a child who has the attention disorder ADHD, divorce at twice the average rate. But this is also chicken and egg question as parents with a bad relationship can contribute to the ADHD.

Having a job where there is a large number of the opposite gender enables comparisons with a spouse and the opportunity to form a relationship with someone who shares work aspirations. Although this applies more often to men, women can also succumb to the charms of a workplace colleague.

The demographic statistics don't explain the interpersonal reasons for marriage failure. When Ilene Wolcott and Jody Hughes of the Australian Institute of Family Studies (1999) asked a sample of 633 divorced people what they thought was the main reason for their marriage ending, they found that the reasons in the order they were most frequently cited were:

  • communication problems (27.3%)
  • incompatibility / drifted apart (21%)
  • an extramarital affair (20.1%)
  • alcohol or drug abuse (7.4%)
  • physical violence to you or children (5.5%)
  • financial problems (4.7%)
  • physical or mental health problems (4.7%)
  • emotional or verbal abuse (1.9%)
  • problems with children (1.4%)
  • other, e.g. disagreements over employment and gender roles in the home (1.4%)
  • spouse's personality (1.1%)
  • family interference from in-laws (0.6%)

Most of the respondents had been divorced for more than five years, so their views as to their marriage history may have been coloured by their current situation. Communication problems and incompatibility included notions of not being understood, feeling that needs were not being met, loss of affection and lack of common interests.

Very few people mentioned sexual incompatibility as the reason for divorce and very few men cited physical violence against them or their children, even though (contrary to popular belief) some studies of crime statistics conclude that women perpetrate more violence than men in the home. Maybe men feel less threatened or that it is unmanly to admit to being the subject of female violence. The low number who sited interference from the in-laws and other reasons such as disagreements over gender roles in the home or conflict over employment is surprising given the widespread publicity of these issues as a cause of marital disharmony over the last two decades.

Infidelity is usually a symptom of a deteriorating marriage, indicating that the trust and emotional bonds between spouses are seriously damaged. Partners can survive this trauma and the relationship strengthened, but it is often a signal that there are major problems with the marriage and a partner is thinking of quitting. Some adult magazine reader surveys have concluded that at least one spouse in about 80% of marriages is unfaithful. Media and Hollywood depictions of infidelity reinforce this view and surveys show that most people believe that extramarital affairs are a common occurrence. But a 1996 survey result from the University of Chicago estimates that within the US 22% of men and 14% of women had had one or more sexual encounters outside their marriages — figures that are consistent with the Australian finding of 20.1% of respondents giving an extramarital affair as the reason for divorce. Infidelity, and the high risk this brings of divorce, is more likely to occur if a partner has had many sexual encounters prior to marriage.

Married clergy have a high rate of divorce and recent publicity has highlighted how clergy are not immune from sexual affairs. A 1991 Minneapolis Star Tribune survey found that 21% of responding Catholic priests said they violated their vow of celibacy, and 15% of Protestant pastors had had an extramarital affair.

Other studies have found that couples who have split also mention:

  • knowing each other for only a short time prior to marriage
  • difficulty handling disagreements
  • lack of commitment to the marriage
  • unrealistic beliefs about marriage
  • a dramatic change in priorities
  • a personality tendency to react strongly or defensively to problems and disappointments in life
  • abandonment
  • preoccupation in non family-related activities

Spouses who regularly forsake the marital bed for assignations with their computer are also creating a serious risk factor. According to a report during 2002, the UK relationship counselling service Relate claimed that one in 10 couples now blame the internet for their marriage problems.


Putting asunder

...CAN there be anything fresh to say about marriage and divorce which has not been agonised over end­lessly? Surprisingly, yes.
...Davidson begins by explaining how his forty years of training and experience as a clinical psychologist and Anglican priest helped him support others going through marriage breakdown and divorce. His own personal journey through separation, divorce, and marriage again has obviously contributed to his appreciation of the anguish and confusion that envelop Christians who believed that marriage was for a lifetime.
...It was his realisation that there are no guidelines to help such people that inspired him to try to provide a set of “Christian principles and guidelines to meet this lack”
>> more Review of When the vow breaks: contemplating Christian divorce in the Church Times April 2010

See the books When the vow breaks: contemplating Christian divorce and Split Decision: Stay? Go? Don't Know! Relationship matters and the accompanying feature articles Infidelity: in hot pursuit of a better organsm or better intimacy?; When you feel like you're sharing a bed with a stranger; Surviving the breakup and Divorce risk indicator also by Graeme Davidson]



 

 

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