When a Marriage Dies

A Look at Divorce in the 21st Century

Popular myths and misconceptions can get in the way of helping others (or ourselves) get over the pain of divorce.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard someone say, “50 percent of marriages end in divorce.” It’s a line that’s been thrown around for decades, but like many of the statements we accept without question as straightforward truths, it’s neither straightforward nor true. Even were we to accept it at face value, it would tell us little about the reasons why people divorce, how divorce affects couples and their families, how to have lasting relationships, or what kind of support people need when they’re going through this deeply painful process. It’s really the answers to these questions we wonder about, rather than simply “How prevalent is divorce?”

Nevertheless, let’s give prevalence a brief look. According to Oxford University’s Our World in Data project, it was only for American couples married during the 1970s that the 50 percent figure would have been nearly true. People married in the ’80s and ’90s were increasingly less likely to divorce.

You might have heard the popularised claim that ‘half of marriages end in divorce’. . . . It was once true: 48 percent of American couples that married in the 1970s were divorced within 25 years. But since then the likelihood of divorce has fallen.”

Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser, “Marriages and Divorces” (2020)

Figures published by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) indicate that, globally, current trends in divorce rates are mixed. But as a percentage of marriages they seem, perhaps surprisingly, to be on the decline in more OECD countries than not. Marriage rates are also declining, and those who do marry are doing so significantly later in life. And here’s some news for those Baby Boomers who can’t find much that’s positive to say about the succeeding generations (at least one of which, it should be noted, they raised themselves): Today’s young married couples are less likely to divorce than their Baby Boomer predecessors.

While people may be marrying later (or not at all) for many reasons, financial concerns weigh heavy on the shoulders of those 35 and under, many of whom were just finishing school and entering the job market when the Great Recession of 2008 struck. They see themselves as being married “someday,” but because of that significant setback, they can’t afford it in the short-term. In the United States, for instance, the Pew Research Center notes that the pressures of student loan debt, worries about financial instability, and economic uncertainty are among reasons young people are staying single longer, despite evidence that they have as much interest in marriage as previous generations. Wages have stagnated, while the cost of living—especially housing—has exploded, making home ownership a pipe dream for most young couples unless at least one set of parents is able and willing to help them with a down payment. Numerous reports indicate that affordable apartment rentals are harder to come by in urban areas the world over, which means young adults are increasingly likely to find themselves living with their parents longer than they might like.

As a result, couples are spending more time getting to know one another before tying the knot—which, one may hope, could contribute to further decreases in the likelihood they will eventually divorce. Indeed, part of getting to know each other involves learning how to find solutions to interpersonal problems together in ways that benefit both parties—possibly the single most important factor in keeping commitment alive and a marriage together.

To Untie the Knot or Not?

Next to the oft-quoted prevalence figure, another common misconception is that the decision to divorce is generally a frivolous one—made on a whim, even, with little regard for the grave consequences for all concerned. But if this were true, couples therapy wouldn’t have become such a sought-after form of counseling. The grief that accompanies divorce can be traumatic, debilitating and life-altering—in the short term but also long afterward, as well as before a distressed marriage goes on life support. Years of heart-wrenching pain often precede the realization that interventions aren’t working and there’s nothing left to do but pull the plug. This decision is agonizing for most. In a vast majority of cases, by the time “the d-word” enters the lexicon of a marriage, at least one of the parties involved feels they have tried everything and given up. Sometimes both have.

The reality is that although a marriage is chronically distressed, even violent, the decision to abandon the one-time commitment to a “happily ever after” can be very difficult. And the longer the marriage has persisted, the more difficult it can be to imagine life without the partner. While both parties to a divorce are still technically alive, the entity that embodied their hopes and dreams of future companionship and old-age partnership has perished. It’s a loss that leaves a painful hole; and as with other losses, the grieving process is neither quick nor easy. If there are children involved, their grief also comes into play. And adults who are grieving are not always in the best state to support confused and grieving children.

Preoccupied with their own distress, recently separated parents find their anger and anguish pressing for expression to sympathetic listeners. . . . They sometimes overlook the fact that their children are also listening.”

Richard A. Warshak, Divorce Poison

In addition to the devastating and family-wide emotional loss, the final fallout of divorce often includes financial upheaval, moving house, and other major life changes. Support networks may shrink as in-laws and friends choose sides. One or the other parent may even become alienated from children. So while there may be a very few who can file for divorce with a light heart, they are certainly not in the majority. For most, it’s neither an impulsive nor an easy decision.

What are the most common reasons people cite for taking this drastic step, then?

While a number of studies have looked at this question, reconciling their findings can be complicated since some researchers provide response choices in their questionnaires and some do not. When open-ended questions are asked, the most-often volunteered reasons were infidelity, incompatibility and addiction. When a closed list is provided and it includes “lack of commitment,” responders usually endorse that answer along with others. Internationally and across multiple studies, couples cite all the reasons we might expect (though not always in the same order): infidelity, addiction, communication problems, religious differences, conflict and abuse, marrying too young, and differences in handling finances, among many others—any of which would certainly erode commitment if unresolved.

UCLA psychologists Thomas Bradbury and Benjamin Karney focus on the importance of a deep level of commitment in protecting against divorce, but it’s not a static quality. It needs constant upkeep by both partners. Commitment is commonly defined as the intensity with which someone wants to maintain a relationship. Bradbury and Karney say that, at its best level, it comes down to both partners being willing to make personal sacrifices for the sake of preserving the marriage, no matter how rough things get.

The key takeaway here is that it takes both partners working toward the same goal. If one partner is abusive or serially unfaithful, for instance, the other person’s commitment will be of little value. These actions seriously maim trust, and as trust dies, commitment dies along with it; without trust there is no relationship. And make no mistake, commitment to an abusive relationship can—and tragically often does—prove fatal.

Religion and Divorce

What we’ve learned so far about the myriad reasons people divorce may challenge some traditional views, particularly the idea that if people would just take marriage more seriously there would be no divorce. It may be easy for observers, particularly those who claim faith-based views, to assume that the fix for these issues is simple commitment to the marriage, no matter what the problems may be. But like many of society’s challenges, divorce isn’t prevented by just making up one’s mind not to divorce. It’s the underlying problems leading inexorably to divorce that need fixing, and it’s often some of the same problems that underlie many other challenging issues.

Those with faith-based views may stop at “God hates divorce,” rather than continuing on to scriptures that use the same verb, hates, in connection with lying, discord, fits of rage and other behaviors that people cite as their motivation for resorting to divorce. So while it may be tempting to believe that staying together, no matter what, is all it takes to prevent divorce, it’s far more likely that this approach simply drives abuses and problems underground rather than leading to necessary change—and it may not even do that in many cases.

In 2008, the Barna Group (a faith-based research organization) reported the divorce rates of varying religions, from atheist to Christian to other faiths. Their findings might surprise some. The three lowest-risk groups for divorce? Catholics, evangelicals and—atheists. From there, the rates go up. Looking at the same figures a different way, when evangelicals and other born-again Christians are combined, their divorce figure is statistically identical to that of non-born-again Christians: 32 percent versus 33 percent respectively. In comparison, 30 percent of atheists and agnostics had been married and subsequently divorced. The Barna Group is quick to explain that the three-point difference from the national average was within the range of sampling error, suggesting that the likelihood of atheists and agnostics experiencing a dissolved marriage is essentially the same as that of the population at large. In other words, there are no meaningful differences between religious adherents, atheists and the general population when it comes to divorce rates.

Indeed, the foundation of Christian belief, the Bible, allows divorce on grounds that include infidelity and irreconcilable differences in religious belief (Matthew 5:31–32; 1 Corinthians 7:12–15). There’s a description of God’s own figurative divorce from Israel for that nation’s betrayal of their covenant—described as infidelity (Jeremiah 3:20)—and a later remarriage under a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–33; Revelation 19:6–9). The Bible acknowledges that divorce is a family trauma while also acknowledging that the ideal conditions for avoiding it don’t always exist in the human realm. Most people who have had to suffer a divorce after months or years of counseling to save a struggling marriage would likely agree with that assessment.

Again, maybe what we’re seeing isn’t the lack of a strong desire to commit to a lifelong marriage. Maybe what we’re seeing is a lack of “relationship intelligence” in the world at large, and this can’t help but affect every system and institution in our society, including marriage. When nations are constantly at war, and this is celebrated from generation to generation, it seems naïve to expect individuals and families to be experts at peacekeeping.

Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

Matthew 19:8 (New King James Version; emphasis added)

In lieu of asking “How do we prevent divorce?” or “How do we prevent child abuse”—or school shootings, or any number of other issues—we could ask, “How do we teach people to treat one another as they should?” or “How do we stop the patterns of abuse and maltreatment that lead to more of the same on every level, from families to communities to governing systems?” As we see every day in the news, arguing about society’s problems is much easier than cooperating to find a way to fix them at the source. It would seem we need to make a radical change in how we approach problems in general. Unfortunately, it’s uncomfortable to ask ourselves how we can eliminate mistreatment, so we mistreat one another as we squabble over whose ideology can best fix the symptoms of our problems.

When it comes to identifying patterns at the source of some of the problems that lead to divorce, we find everything from outright violence and infidelity to stonewalling, gaslighting and other controlling behaviors. Clearly the traits that contribute to a lasting marriage are not so different from the traits that contribute to good relationships with others in general (whether we’re married to them or not). Trustworthiness. Commitment to working out problems. Self-sacrifice, openness and honesty. Love, respect, care and concern for one another. These are good character traits for anyone, not just for married people. In the end, who we are in our marriage is only a reflection of who we are as a person and how we approach relationships in general. But just like in a friendship or business relationship, one person can’t do all the work; and in most cases the dynamics are complex and not easily assessed from the outside.

The simple fact is that sometimes the marriage can’t be saved, and sometimes it can even be dangerous to persist in trying to save it.

Support for the Grieving

When a couple reaches that point where either partner has started the divorce process, they need the support of friends and family just as much as if a spouse had died. Comparing the two types of losses in every respect isn’t within the scope of this article; but there are some similarities, and one of them is that friends and family often don’t know what to say or how best to support those involved.

The first important point to note is that both parties to a divorce will be suffering a dreadful loss, regardless of who initiated the process. A lot of pain and distress has likely come before; and depending on circumstances, there may be a lot more to come.

I’m sorry for your pain and loss; it must be very difficult” is a perfectly appropriate way for friends and family to express support and concern. If the divorcee happens to be at a stage where they’re mainly relieved to be out of the stress and pain of the marriage, they’ll let you know and you can adjust your support accordingly. However, many people will still be reeling from the loss of the marriage for months afterward, particularly if they must leave a home or community, downsize their household, figure out difficult finances, and/or struggle to help their children cope with a new reality. Adjusting to being single again while juggling the demands of work, children, household and finances without another pair of hands can be tremendously difficult. Offers to help are unlikely to be refused in most cases.

For everyone involved, a support system is a key to survival.”

If circumstances allow, and especially if there are children involved, try to be kind—or at least civil—to both parties. Divorce is hard enough on children without having to hear the adults who are close to them demonize one of their parents. It should go without saying that asking who’s to blame in the breakup is extremely unhelpful. This includes such questions as “What happened?” “What did you do?” “What went wrong?” Or “Did you see it coming?”

Even if they did see it coming, there’s often a great deal of uncertainty clouding the future for someone who is going through a divorce. How will the kids cope? How will I cope? Where will we live? How will we survive financially? Knowing this, it’s more constructive to ask questions about how we can help than to make pronouncements about the outcome, no matter how reassuring they’re meant to be. Statements like “Kids are resilient; yours will be fine!” or “You’ll end up with someone better!” are not as encouraging as we might hope. Some children are more resilient than others, but most will be quite troubled by the process and by their parents’ distress as events go forward. And the divorcing friend is highly unlikely to be thinking about jumping straight into a new relationship, unless they’re already in one (hence the divorce). Otherwise the idea of “ending up with someone” may be overwhelming at the very least, and possibly downright frightening.

In general, people who are grieving aren’t ready to have all the seemingly positive aspects of their situation pointed out to them. They don’t need us to tell them how eminently datable they are or how much better off they are without the person they had once chosen as their life partner. Remember that they once loved this person enough to build a future life around them. There may still be a great deal of love mingled with the hurt and distress, which makes the grief and loss all the more painful. In most cases, it doesn’t really help them feel better to hear us run their former partner down.

The truth is, grief is a normal reaction after divorce, and everyone processes it in their own way and on their own timeline. The recovery process may seem to go slowly for some, and this may be partly because there aren’t really support rituals around divorce grief. There’s no funeral to mark the ending, no memorial, no wake. A divorcing person’s life trajectory completely changes, and there’s nothing to mark it other than perhaps a decree that arrives one day in the mail. This can lead to feelings of disenfranchisement, a sense of unreality and isolation. Friends and family may be able to help by remembering dates that might be painful for the grieving person (such as a wedding anniversary or the date the divorce became final) and making plans to spend time with them. Supporting someone who is grieving a divorce is made easier if we keep in mind that grief is grief. While circumstances leading to grief do differ, grief itself is a painful process, whatever has prompted it.

The ending of a marriage is certainly not an ideal outcome. It bears repeating that divorce is painful for both partners, for any children involved, and often for in-laws and other relatives. It’s in everyone’s best interest if both partners are willing and able to work out their differences, whether that means going to couples therapy or other forms of counseling. But it’s important for us as family and friends to realize that this isn’t always possible and that it really isn’t our role to discover why. Our role is to offer the support the separating couple and their children will need in order to weather the difficult grieving process and manage the physical challenges involved in the transition from one family to two.