Why do people start thinking about divorce? Do thoughts of divorce always lead to divorce? Findings from The National Divorce Decision-Making Project give insight to these questions and others regarding the threshold of what the researchers labeled “divorce ideations” and the patterns that emerge. Their goal is “to increase awareness of the negative impact of divorce, and encourage discussion and debate about the effect of divorce on our culture, as well as the cost to taxpayers.” The project is a collaboration among researchers at six universities including Brigham Young University. Alan J. Hawkins (director) and Sage E. Allen are the researchers from BYU’s College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences.
As stated in the project report, “Divorce is a scary thing to think about so we tend to assume there is a high personal tolerance of marital problems before people start having such thoughts. But maybe in a culture with high divorce rates and widespread concerns about the fragility of marriage, it is hard not to have some thoughts about divorce when problems and disappointments exist in the marriage.”
The report states that one in four spouses in the survey had had thoughts about divorce in the last six months. Divorce ideation was not found to be especially common in one demographic subgroup over another. For example, women reported having ideations only slightly more than men (27% vs. 22%), parents with minor children were a little higher than those without (27% vs. 21%), and there was almost no difference between those who said religion was an important part of their lives and those who said it was not (24% vs. 25%).
Research was conducted through a national survey of 3,000 individuals. Participants were married people ages 25-50 who had been married for at least one year. Survey participants who reported having recent divorce ideations were asked about the frequency of these thoughts. The majority (70%) reported that they were not frequent. They were also asked about the level of seriousness in their thoughts. Using both qualitative and quantitative responses, a statistical analysis suggested to the researchers that fifty-three percent of those thinking about divorce recently were soft thinkers, or not serious, and forty-seven percent were serious thinkers.
The researchers stated, “While thoughts about divorce are common, both recently and in the past, it is clear that most people are committed to their marriages, patient with their problems, and often able to work through their challenges.”
Survey participants were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “I would feel like a failure if my marriage were to end.” Over half of the participants (55%) agreed. The percentage of disagreement was much lower (25%) and the remaining (20%) were caught between the two options.
Those who reported recent divorce ideations were asked to identify the marital problems they were experiencing from a list of sixteen potential problems. This list included more intense problems (infidelity, alcohol/drug abuse, physical or emotional abuse), moderately intense problems (mental health problems, arguing too much, sexual relationship problems, handling money), and less intense problems (personal habits, working too much, dividing domestic labor, unable to talk together, losing romantic feelings, not committed enough). As expected, the majority of those who reported experiencing the less intense problems also reported that they had only thought about divorce a few times. Interestingly, a less expected trend was also discovered. “Of those who were thinking a lot about divorce, most had at least one of the more intense problems. But even among those reporting at least one of the more intense problems, a majority said that they had only thought about divorce a few times recently.”
The researchers clarified some of their findings:
Does this mean that soft thinkers are not at risk for divorce? Probably not. Thoughts are different from actions but they clearly can influence them over time. Even soft, occasional thoughts about divorce can color perceptions of a relationship, shaping feelings in more negative ways that can make marriages less satisfying and more fragile … [but] we also know that many people go through tough times in their marriage and not only survive but thrive. In fact, our survey found that more than one in four respondents (28%) had thought their marriage was in serious trouble at some point in the past but not recently. And nearly 90% of them said they were glad they were still married; less than 1% were not glad to be together.
Survey participants were asked about what had helped their marriage improve from times of serious trouble. A high number of participants reported that they or their spouse had adjusted their attitude. They also reported highly that they or their spouse had worked at fixing problems and improving the relationship.
The researchers are optimistic about their findings: “Our study suggests that thoughts about divorce don’t have to be a sign of impending marital doom. And maybe thoughts about divorce can even be the motivation needed to take some action to try to strengthen or repair a relationship.”
The project was also sponsored by BYU’s Family Studies Center.
More information is provided in the full report. Read it here: https://familystudiescenter.byu.edu/Documents/Reports/What%20are%20they%20thinking%20FINAL%20digital.pdf
What tips would you provide to someone who is thinking about divorce?
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