Theological Editions - Indepth daily religious news, views, reviews & key theological resources

In-depth religious news, views, reviews, features & resources for the thinking person



Liturgy & Prayer

News & Magazines


Texts & Resources


  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]



See also
Should we intervene to prevent suicide? >> more
Divorce risk indicator >> more
When you feel like you're sharing a bed with a stranger >> more
Surving the breakup >> more
Suicide terrorism as a desperate weapon of liberation >> more
Ned Flanders — popular face of Christianity >> more
Seven common myths about religion >> more
Moral divide between church leaders and laity >> more
Unholy silence over MPs hypocrisy and greed >> more
Anglican schism over gay clergy inevitable >> more
My agonising path to enlightenment >> more
More than ever, it's a time for generosity >> more
National's ethics smell of political expediency >> more
Pope's trip to Holy Land fraught with potholes >> more
The resurrection may have been superfluous >> more
Rasputin — from sinner and seducer to saint? >> more
Religious delusions and the Jerusalem syndrome >> more
Protest mild compared with Jesus' vandalism >> more
What Castro and Obama have in common >> more
Holidays can revive romance or widen cracks between couples >> more
Dubious scholarship reinterprets Jesus to fit secular creed >> more
Furore over gay marriage echoes the conflict over slavery >> more
If only politics were as certain as dear old granny >> more
You've got to have faith to win the White House >> more
The problem of evil >> more
TV Programmers let lose Roman circus >> more
Prostitutes welcome in the kingdom of God but not in Dannevirke >> more
Church too busy navel-gazing to take lead over crime >> more
Will the Anglican Church split over gay clergy and same-sex unions? >> more
Faith in secular western society >> more
The Vatican's pelvic theology >> more
Abuse and the Beijing Olympics >> more
Would the real Jesus stand up? >> more
Hypersensitivity perverts ethics >> more
God and presidential hopefuls >> more
A three-ghetto church based on politics >> more
Good and bad intentions >> more
Deliver us from exorcists who harm >> more
How effective is prayer? >> more
Masters of non-violence, resistance and kung fu >> more
Was Mother Teresa living a lie? >> more
Double standards over child sex abuse >> more
Soppy inspirational and pseudo-spiritual emails >> more
Caring organisations and pyschopathic bosses >> more
The new anti-religious evangelists >> more
Call for religious education could backfire >> more
Blessing creatures great & small — but what about blowflies? >> more
Does God exist only in the brain? >> more
The Prudes who crucify >> more
tomb raiders and the bones of Jesus and his family? >> more
Jesus loves Osama >> more
Is God more like a matchbox or a number? >> more
Confessions of a failed axe murderer >> more
Bacchanalian festivals and sentimentality >> more
Manners: insignificant social customs? >> more
The 109 fighting boys >> more
Trying to exhume the historical Jesus >> more
Is global violence really on the increase? >> more
Polygamy, circumcision, atheist journalists and religious diversity >> more
The Christian Right stands by Israel out of a misguided theology  >> more 
What a rat taught me >> more
The Church is becoming a retirement hobby for granny clergy >> more 
Is there an anti-Christian conspiracy in Hollywood? >> more
Have church schools sold out on Christianity? >> more
How good a Christian is President George W Bush? >> more

Hitler, Lawyers, Politicians SUV owners and life after death >> more

Were the Christian hostages really idiots for peace? >> more
Infidelity: in hot pursuit of a better organsm or better intimacy? >> more
Skulduggery and controversy over discovery of religious texts >> more
The cartoons aren't about secular freedoms versus intolerance >> more

Christian Zionists hinder justice and peace in the Middle East >> more

Should making more money be your New Year's resolution? >> more
My early life as a black sheep in a nativity scene >> more
Different types of suicide bomber: what makes them tick >> more
Cheating a short cut to sucess in winner-take-all society >> more
Life after death: Is it logically possible? >> more
Is it Anglican to practise apartheid? >> more
Da Vinci Code unlocks controversy>> more
Bishops' statement: pompous, pious, out of touch and verging on the heretical >> more 
Church leaders unconvincing over prostitution law reform >> more
Divorce risk factors >> more
How global are we?  A Christian's view of globalisation >> more
Victims of dirty tricks & friendly fire: Machiavellian tactics in the Church militant >> more
A redundant resurrection >> more
War, violence, ethics, religion and hypocrisy >> more
If St Peter was interviewed for ordination today >> more
13 ways to empty a church without really trying >> more
How tolerant is the Museum of Tolerance? >> more
A church comes out and reconciliation divides >> more
Micah's dream — too much to ask? >> more
Has the revised Anglican Church in New Zealand instigated a benign form of religious apartheid? >> more
The case for St Judas Iscariot >> more
Exorcism: the ministry of deliverance >> more