Divorce is not a single event, it is a process that people go through. The first stage in this process is making the decision to pursue a divorce. This is often when people enter couples counselling, when they are “on the brink” of divorce. It would, of course, have been better to enter counselling before things got to this point, however, even at this stage there is often hope for relationships. Couples counseling does not always end in successfully reestablishing the relationship. Sometimes, instead, the therapy process can clarify the challenges that a couple faces, which can help in determining whether to divorce.
There are a number of factors that go into making the decision to divorce. Today, marriage is not often seen as a cultural, economic, or religious institution. Instead, it is now seen as a place where there should be emotional ties of love, affection, and companionship. Unfortunately, these feelings can be difficult to foster and maintain through the rigors of decades of stress and change. Not surprisingly, feelings of “lack of love” are one of the major reasons for people seeking divorce. However, other common reasons are extramarital affairs and communication difficulties.
The process of coming to a place where there are no longer feelings of affection or connection in a relationship often begins shortly after the wedding ceremony. Forty percent of couples experience feelings of doubt and disappointment in the first six months of marriage. Sixty percent experience this in their first year. Usually it isn’t any one big thing that causes these disappointments, instead, it is a “pile up” of smaller issues. Then, after this pileup has grown, there is often a “crystallizing event” that is representative, or captures, all of the previous disappointments. These disappointments can include things like controlling behavior, irresponsibility, and lack of emotional support.
Gottman, a prolific writer on relationships, has done extensive research on the factors in relationships that predict divorce. He has found that it is not the amount of arguing that predicts divorce, but the type of communication in arguments that is important. For example, is there contempt in the relationship? Is there stonewalling (blocking the other person out ) in the relationship? These factors can be much more important in determining whether a couple will be able to survive.
However, it is not only how of a couple communicates that affects whether they will divorce. Divorce is also related to the number and severity of stressors that couples have to manage. That is, a couple may have fairly good communication strategies to deal with problems, but if they have a lot of problems to deal with it can still be a strain on the relationship. The common problems that couples face have to do with finances, sex, and children.
As people approach the decision to divorce, they often decide through an analysis of the rewards and costs of staying versus leaving. Even though this process may not be completed in a methodical way, it is still often observable. In this process people will think about the rewards that they have in the relationship. These might include income, status, affection, children, and companionship. These are the things that hold the marriage together. Then, the person would likely consider the barriers to leaving the relationship. These might include religious values, pressure from friends or family, children’s interests, and impact on the spouse. The last step is an analysis of the alternatives to being in the relationship. The rewards of leaving the relationship may be clearer if another relationship is already in place, or it may just be an abstract idea of what is possible if the person was no longer in the marriage. If the alternatives to being in the marriage are more attractive than the rewards of being in the marriage and the barriers to leaving the marriage, this can often lead to a decision to end the relationship.
This decision making process can also be influenced by the community that surrounds the decision-maker. It has been shown that divorce is “catchy”. If a person is surrounded by other couples who are seeking divorce, they are more likely to get a divorce themselves. On the other hand, if a person is engaged in helping their friends stay in their relationships, this action seems to be a protective factor against divorce.
The decision to seek a divorce is only the first step in the process. Once the decision is made, the couple needs to begin learning about the process of seeking and finalizing a divorce. This can often be a painful process, especially as it enters the legal system, which is, by its very nature, adversarial. Counseling can be helpful in this stage in order to help partners separate amicably. Often it is important to negotiate ways of communicating if children are involved.
The final stage in the divorce process is coping with the after-effects. People can often feel extremely isolated as they have now lost their spouse and often many of their friends. No longer having a confidant to process emotional difficulties with can be a shock for people. I often find that people need support as they rebuild their social lives and manage the difficulties associated with ending such a significant relationship.
As people move toward divorce, it can be a very challenging and confusing time. Unfortunately, support can be difficult to find because the strain in the relationship can cause fractures in relationships between the couple and their relatives. Also, supporters may quickly take sides and their advice can be extremely one sided. Whether the relationship ends or continues on, it is usually important for couples to find people who understand and provide a place to process the decision to divorce and the emotions that accompany this time of stress.
By Syras Derksen
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2000). The timing of divorce: Predicting when a couple will divorce over a 14-year period. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 737-745.
Mcdermott, R., Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2013). Breaking up is hard to do, unless everyone else is doing it too: Social network effects on divorce in a longitudinal sample. Social Forces, 92, 491-519.