Falling in love is a thing of elation, and then there’s the wedding day. Two partners star in their own rom-com, vows are spoken, the audience claps, and the newlyweds ride off into the sunset together, with decades of marital bliss on the horizon. Their love will surely stand the test of time…or will it? In fact, what if there comes a day when the marriage simply becomes loveless?
In the honeymoon phase, the prospect of divorce may feel light years away. But the reality of making a marriage work is not as simple as a stroll down the aisle. While all relationships experience trials, and even the healthiest couples fluctuate in terms of mutual happiness, unfortunately, some differences prove to be irreconcilable—even toxic.
We linked up with some experts who enlightened us to the most common reasons couples seek divorce, as well as topics that show up in marital counseling sessions and in the courtroom. So if thoughts of divorce are blinking on your radar, ahead is a wealth of information to help you validate whether or not your “happily ever after” has become “better off apart.”
So what are the most common reasons marriages fall apart?
Divorce attorney, Kelly Frawley, partner at Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP, claims to have heard it all—from, “I can’t stand his family” to protests over a partner’s changing body. The two most common reasons echoing throughout her practice, however? Money battles and relational boredom. “Couples may disagree about spending habits as well as the bigger financial picture in terms of savings and retirement goals,” she says.
And then there is the boredom piece—when the sense of adventure and passion has lost its pulse. Frawley says this often happens when couples lose their ability to relate day to day. “People may find they do not share the same interests as they once did, or they’re not excited about being intimate with their spouse.”
Frawley’s observations are well-aligned with a recent divorce study, where roughly 40 percent of its participants cited financial issues and “getting married too young” as having been major players in their marriage’s demise. Infidelity and conflict were mentioned even more–with almost 60 percent of the participating divorcees admitting that extramarital affairs and excessive arguing were among their final straws. But the most shouted complaint of all? A lack of commitment—coming in at a whopping 75 percent.
There’s no one year of marriage that you’re most vulnerable to divorce.
Dr. Lori Whatley, clinical psychologist, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Connected & Engaged says that there does seem to a popular time to get divorced, regardless of whether you’ve been together for two years or twenty: intense periods of adjustment.
“The first year is extremely hard and often comes with surprises, because it’s a merging of beliefs, separate family traditions and financial habits, in order to create a new family unit,” she says.
And for couples who decide to toss a child into the mix, the surprises don’t end there. “When children are introduced, it can be an absolute shock for a lot of couples,” says Dr. Whatley. Say, for example, when partners trade in their sexy, wine-drenched date nights and spontaneous weekend getaways for a sleep-deprived blur of feeding, burping and changing diapers. Or, there could be issues with an interfering in-law whose heightened presence as a grandparent negatively bleeds over into the way one views their spouse.
Regardless, Dr. Whatley has observed that if a couple is already struggling to harmonize their personalities and goals, the newfound responsibility of a child may put further strain on the marriage.
Finally, empty nesters are often struck with yet another challenging stretch. After years spent hauling kids to music lessons and sporting practices, many couples suddenly find themselves seated alone at a quiet dinner table—sometimes unable to organically lock eyes. “Some partners aren’t sure they can connect with each other privately anymore,” she says. “They may have neglected their intimacy for years, and then there is nothing left to salvage.”
Emily Pollock, partner at Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP, says that, while her firm represents individuals in all stages of marriage—she has noticed that the majority of cases “are closer to the middle of the spectrum—between 7 and 14 years.”
Unmet expectations is another top cause of divorce.
Sometimes spouses discover that they clash. From personality conflicts to glaring political differences, perhaps there has been no single eruptive event and there is no one person to blame. They just want to be shown the exit door.
Dr. Whatley explains that the first year or two of a romance is fueled by a cocktail of chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin—creating an intoxicating haze of blind distraction. But then the intoxication runs out, and any red flags that were once ignored have taken center stage. “When the body physiologically calms down, and you’re no longer crazy in love, you’re doing real life together. And you may realize that you and your spouse are fundamentally different people,” she says.
Dr. Whatley adds that, based upon her observation, the most common reason for irreconcilable differences is unmet expectations. “People often create all of these expectations that their spouse will eventually adjust certain behaviors or habits to better suit their own. But you can never change another person; you can only change yourself.”
Of course, infidelity is another leading reason.
However, Dr. Whatley says it doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. “Infidelity is almost always a symptom of another problem. While some marriages never heal from it, I have seen many couples create even better marriages after working through the issues surrounding it,” she says.
Denna Babul, relationship expert and author of the upcoming book Love Strong: Change Your Narrative, Change Your Life and Take Your Power Back agrees. “If a marriage has a solid foundation that, over time, becomes compromised in some way, infidelity can happen in marriages that are ultimately worth saving–so long as the person who cheated is genuinely remorseful and committed to rebuilding the relationship’s trust,” she says.
But there’s a catch. In order to come back from infidelity, the person who was betrayed must still be able to see their spouse in a recognizably loving light. “If the person is so hurt that they are no longer able to see their spouse as the one they fell in love with, that may ultimately destroy the marriage,” says Babul.
In a 2019 survey, “lack of intimacy” was cited as one of the most prevalent factors.
In a 2019 study published by Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, the most common reason for divorce was found to be a lack of love and intimacy. Dr. Shannon Chavez, Los Angeles-based psychologist and sex therapist, says that sexless marriages are shockingly common, and that the majority of her divorced clients report having experienced its pain. “In sexless marriages, a person can go a long time without feeling desired and loved, and their self-esteem can take serious hits because of it,” she says.
So, in such a case, it’s understandable why a person might wish to leave a marriage that’s left them untouched for months or years. But Dr. Chavez urges her clients to consider that, while eroticism fades over time, a seemingly flat-lined sex life doesn’t necessarily mean that divorce papers should be filed. “If there is still a connection there, couples can work to check in with each other’s desires and find new ways to excite and indulge in each other. Unless there are other serious issues within the marriage, in the majority of cases, it’s definitely possible to revive the intimacy and sexual connection,” she says.
What if your spouse is emotionally or physically abusive?
In a recent study, nearly a quarter of divorcees cited domestic violence as a major contributor to the expiration of their marriage. Katie Hood, TED Speaker and CEO of One Love Foundation says that the evolution of an abusive marriage is quite sneaky—often disguised in the early days as healthy love. “It usually starts with the abusive spouse dominating all of your time and energy, then slowly isolating you from friends and family. Before long, you may have little to no support system outside of the marriage,” she says.
Other classic signs of abuse are control (i.e. your spouse micromanages your social media presence or freaks when you attempt to forge an identity outside of the marriage), a cycle of blaming, gaslighting and punishment, and high volatility. “The abused may feel like they are walking on eggshells—constantly framing their decisions in an effort to avoid a negative reaction from their spouse,” she says. Worst of all? The cycle of abusive behavior is so psychologically complex that it conditions the abused to lose faith in themselves. “The whole process of abuse breaks down a person’s conviction. If the abuser is constantly saying, ‘This isn’t my fault; it’s your fault,’ the abused loses confidence in their own judgment,” says Hood.
So if one has reached their capacity for tolerating abuse, and is mulling over plans to divorce, Hood emphasizes the necessity of putting safety protocols in place. “Abusive relationships are all about control. Filing for divorce is the ultimate break in that control, so this is why gathering a support system with safety planning is essential before leaving an abusive marriage,” she says.
But not all divorces are a result of “serious” issues.
Perhaps it’s not that there is anything horribly wrong in the marriage; there just isn’t enough left that feels right.
For example, let’s say your spouse married a junk food addict, and the two of you bonded over a mutual fondness for nachos and cookie dough ice cream, but, over time, your curiosity about fitness and clean eating accelerated into a passion, and you evolved into a wellness enthusiast. Or, perhaps you were agnostic when you married, but have since become aligned with a spiritual belief system that your spouse deems as woo-woo. Over time, you may feel like the two of you exist in separate universes.
Dr. Whatley says it’s not typically the changes that create the problems, but a spouse’s resistance to those changes that cause the breakdown of a marriage. “Is your spouse willing to let you grow and live in a way that is meaningful to you? Are they willing to learn about and support the activities you deeply love? If that doesn’t happen, it can cause a person to feel like they’ve outgrown a marriage, sometimes leading to divorce,” she says.
And the same goes for ones that happen in couples that have been together for decades.
While it’s often puzzling when couples, after many successful years together—perhaps spent building a life filled with gorgeous family photographs–decide to start over separately, Dr. Whatley says it’s not so mysterious. She explains it can be attributed to the small, daily ripples of change that eventually lead to monumental differences over time. “The period after 30 or 35 years of marriage can be strikingly tough. “People evolve and change slowly and steadily over the years, and sometimes they wake up and realize that they didn’t evolve and change as a couple,” she says.
Dr. Whatley adds that when women start to cross out of middle-age and approach their golden years, it’s not uncommon for them to reconsider a myriad of things about their life. “In recent years, there has been strong evidence of women in their late 50s and early 60s seeking divorce more and more. I’ve seen it in a few studies as well as in my practice,” she says. “I think it’s a time when one evaluates their worth, as well as how they want to make the most of the rest of their days.”
For a marriage to thrive, there has to be mutual respect, but not necessarily constant happiness.
Dr. Whatley believes the most essential ingredient in a healthy marriage is mutuality. “You need mutual respect and a mutual emotional connection.” She adds, “Reasonable behavior in a marriage does not have to do with acting or feeling happy all of the time. Happiness in a relationship is not a constant state; it wouldn’t be special if it was. It’s about the two parties who sometimes disagree and mess up, but always bounce back—because they each want to bounce back.”
Hood says we have to fight the narrative that there exists a marriage on high where two partners are perfectly in sync and fair with each other all of the time. The key is to be able to safely communicate when you aren’t in sync, and when you feel you’ve been wronged. That differentiates a worthwhile marriage from a toxic one. “When you feel disappointed, hurt or trapped, in any way, can you have that conversation and still be heard fairly?”
How is the coronavirus impacting marriages?
Dr. Whatley says that 2020 is an interesting year for marriages, and predicts there will be droves of relational paradigm shifts on the other side of the pandemic. “I have some clients who are quarantined with their spouse in small places. If they were on the fence about their marriage, this has brought immense clarity—some have grown closer, while many have realized that it’s simply not working,” she says.
Pollock says that the shelter-in-place orders are provoking individuals to take a microscope to their relationships. When the freedom to venture out of the house for a cocktail, or to a friend’s place to blow off steam is stripped away, having nowhere to run sort of serves as a magnifier—of both the good and the bad. “We have gotten calls from people who have been prompted to seek divorce counsel as a result of examining their relationships. We are encouraging people not to make any final decisions based on these very unusual circumstances during which everyone is under significant stress,” she says.
So while some individuals may be inspired to view their relationships in a light of heightened gratitude, Pollock says others “may have entered the crisis viewing their marriage as not great but ‘good enough,’ but will leave it with a new perspective that life is too short to settle for ‘good enough.’”
At the end of the day, divorce happens because a marriage has lost its glue.
Regardless of the reasons that provoke thoughts of divorce, how does one know when it’s really over? Dr. Whatley says it’s when the marriage has lost its glue. “You know that special thing you bond over, that has always held you together—in conflict, in tragedy, or after a huge mistake? Couples can come back from so many awful things, but only when the glue is still there. If it’s lost, if it starts to feel indifferent, that’s when the marriage falls apart.” She adds, “…and that is when it is nearly impossible to be put back together.”
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