Estimates from the US Census tell us that almost half of all marriages today end in divorce, and the average marriage lasts almost seven years. This averages to almost one million divorces per year for the last ten years. If you factor in the ending of gay and lesbian relationships (since such couples can’t be legally married, they can’t be legally divorced and thus don’t get counted in these statistics), as well as committed but unmarried heterosexual couples, the numbers grow even more.
There’s been a lot of research done on why couples end their relationships. There are many myths, but, reviewing some of the common reasons given in popular circles…
- Sometimes the partners were not good matches to start with, or were too young (see the CDC study) to make good choices about partners and commitments. Many view the relationship as a “mistake of youth” and see divorce as a chance to start over. They may leave the relationship with few negative feelings about their ex and enter new relationships with less “baggage”
- Sometimes partners change over the course of the years. Denied needs come out, new needs and desires develop, hurts pile up, and the change may become so great that the couple is no longer compatible. Sometimes the couple finds initial differences that they thought they would overcome have instead led to painful struggles, unhappiness, and failure (see Gottman)
- Sometimes one partner hid psychological problems, or developed them during the course of the relationship. Sometime the other partner failed to see the warning signs. Communication and problem-resolution skills suffer, as does intimacy and sexual closeness. Therapy and any changes it produces may be “too little, too late”
While in my experience couples present many different reasons for considering a divorce, they almost always reflect one of the above situations. Regardless of the specific problem that brings a couple to consider this, many of the same kinds of problems can develop. Below is some of the data on marital stress and difficulties.
Cummings and Davies, in their book, Children and Marital Conflict: the Impact of Family Dispute and Resolution, point out that in 30% of couples experiencing relationship distress, one parent is suffering from significant clinical depression. Since women experience significant levels of depression twice as often as men, it is more likely that the depressed partner is a woman. However, men may also become depressed, and turn to alcohol or overworking to cope and in some ways escape the marriage.
When one partner is depressed, the children are also at greater risk for depression too. The parent’s unavailability is disruptive to their lives and their sense of the home, and they may become withdrawn and quiet, or become more anxious and hyperactive. Typically, in a two-parent home, the other parent tries to compensate and faces many new stresses that take their toll:
- Living with a depressed person is often an emotional drain, and the relationship provides little support and revitalization for the functioning partner. Seeing the other partner sad and dejected is often painful and upsetting by itself, and sometimes the helplessness the functioning partner feels turns to anger at and rejection of the depressed partner.
- Working to compensate for the depressed partner’s low energy and limited interest in the family is also draining. Trying to be more emotionally available to the children and more understanding of their needs can make parenting seem like a chore, and lead to more resentment toward the depressed partner.
- Shouldering more of the financial burdens and day-to-day management of the family to compensate for the depressed partner’s unavailability or inability to function is time-consuming and taxing. It may stir doubts about the relationship, whether the functioning partner can “take it,” and intense feelings of resentment and isolation. The functioning partner may begin to feel like a single parent, and see divorce as no different than current life.
Research has shown that these stresses often lead to significant depression in the functioning partner, although in the majority of cases it does not lead to clinical levels of depression. In clinical work, I often find that the functioning spouse is the one who initiates treatment, often because they “can’t take it anymore.” Marital work may continue, or lead to individual therapy for the depressed spouse.
Substance abuse tends to disrupt a relationship. Many studies have shown that substance use is not a risk factor for relationship problems on its own. Rather, it serves to exacerbate other problems; when other problems are present, such as codependence, violence, or intense resentment, substance use makes the problem worse, and multiplies the stress and problems they cause.
Whether use entails periodic bouts of binge drinking or drug use, or daily use in smaller but still problematic quantities, substance use causes significant problems of its own, however. Substance abuse promotes (for both the user and the partner) significant denial, rationalization, distortion, and avoidance. Other stresses such as missed work and lost income, significant debts, health issues, arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol, and the simple unavailability of partners during and after a binge take their toll on a marriage.
Some report that they find their relationship and family interactions to be much more pleasant when they are drinking. Resentments, hurts, and losses are easier to take and the “improved mood” makes living and being together easier. In some families, it may be that while the parent is drinking, they become more amiable and less likely to confront family problems. This may appear to be a benefit of alcohol use; however, typically this only leads to forestalling problems until they reach a crises level. This creates chronic stress and dysfunction in the family, and makes enjoying closeness and stability a difficult thing. How can you relax when you know some big problem is on the horizon? The entire family continues to avoid the problem, much like the alcoholic.
Jacob and Krahn report that research has shown that for many couples, interactions with and without alcohol differ drastically. During periods of alcohol use, the family shows
- more avoidance by the user and thus less discussion of real problems and solutions.
- more hostility and anger in the couples’ conversations, often in the form of critical comments and “biting sarcasm.”
- more disagreements and exaggeration of small problems into big issues.
- far fewer positive interactions in terms of compliments, signs of empathy, and smiling, all the things that make the marriage pleasant and happy.
I have found in clinical work that when one partner is abusing substances, they destabilize the relationship and prevent any significant work on “real issues.” Therapy feels to the couple like “putting out fires” every session rather than making progress. There is some evidence that alcoholic fathers tend to be more critical and conflicted in their relationships when they have a son. Jacob and Krahn hypothesize that the father may feel more guilt over the example he sets for his son, but the interaction of the son and other parent against the father may in many ways be responsible. Clinical experience often shows that where the father is alcoholic and there is a son in the home, the son tends to take on “father responsibilities” in an effort to compensate for the father’s abdication of his role. This can mean anything from taking care of the home to picking up dad from the bar when he stays out late drinking.
Communication Style and Problem-Solving
Some couples build good communication skills, while others show poor communication, problem-solving, and intimacy skills from the outset. They may have never learned these skills in their family if the family was emotionally negligent. Thus, they have to learn new skills. They may have learned dysfunctional and maladaptive skills if their family suffered from psychological problems. Thus, they have to unlearn old ways, and then learn new ways to respond. Or, the couple may simply come from vastly different kinds of “normal” families. Learning to communicate their needs in way that the other can understand is a difficult and time-consuming process, one that is naturally fraught with mis-steps, pitfalls, and traps.
Research has documented several problematic communication and coping styles:
- Withdrawal During Conflict – In some couples, one partner habitually withdraws during conflict. This sets up a greater likelihood of continued conflict. This does not mean that “taking a break” or “tabling” an argument to a time when both are calmer is a bad idea. Rather, walking out of an argument and failing to come back to resolve it leaves the issue a “sore spot.” It allows the issue to come up in the next argument. Arguments become chronic occurrences. Each is nastier and nastier. Cognitive-Behavioral psychologists focus on the consequence of this. Discussion with one’s partner becomes associated with negative and painful arguments. The partners will continue to push the other to leave the conversation, or leave it themselves, to avoid the ugly argument and list of faults they sense with follow.
- Emotional Instability – In couples where one person loses control of their emotions, conflict is more likely to occur. This is especially true for anger; while in the 70’s some thought that a family expressing all its anger was actually healthy, studies have shown that more expression of anger leads to more anger to express. Anger can frighten one or both partners, make bringing up problems for calm discussion a more anxiety provoking process, and make any discussion tiring and confusing. When one partner comes from a family that experienced violence, intense anger in the other partner can lead to sudden spikes in anxiety, and a kind of “fight or flight” mentality. Little progress can be made at that point on any issue.
- Lack of Reciprocity – In couples where negative interactions, biting criticism, and lack of “small sacrifices” occur, protracted conflict is more likely. This includes the minor things couples do to make their partner happy, like putting the cap back on the toothpaste to avoid annoying a partner, and surprising a partner with flowers or compliments. Studies of happy couples reveals that the presence of such positive interactions, humor, greater empathy, and “small sacrifices” often made initial differences, such as in religion, career goals, and background factors, less relevant and easier to overcome.
When Divorce Is Inevitable
When relationship therapy, couples workshops, and the partners’ best efforts don’t work out, conflict, separation, and eventually divorce often occur. Some separate, thinking they will work things out and get back together, but research shows that when a couple physically separates, divorce is more likely than reunification.
While it is a painful time, divorce can also allow for significant and positive changes in everyone’s lives. Efforts to achieve the impossible can end, old hurts can heal, and adults and children can lead more conflict-free lives. The key to achieving these benefits, however, is the adults involved in the divorce. They will “make or break” the family’s adaptation.