The causes of divorce differ from relationship to relationship, but there are certain harmful patterns that can come up in any marriage that can take a couple down.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by the first five years of marriage, 22% of couples experience some form of “marital disruption,” which refers to separation, divorce or death. After 20 years of marriage, 53% of marriages have been disrupted.
The good news for those feeling unsettled, unhappy or frustrated in their marriage is that all couples struggle with the same issues. According to Esther Perel, psychotherapist, bestselling author of “The State of Affairs" and host of two popular podcasts, both happy and miserable couples experience the same problems. It is how each couple comes together and relates to each other that defines whether the relationship will thrive or end.
When couples turn toward each other with kindness, understanding and empathy, they can endure even the worst storms. However, when the couple comes with boxing gloves on, treating each other with contempt, defensiveness and suspicion, the marital prognosis under any circumstance won’t be positive.
As the founder of the Smart Dating Academy, I work with all kinds of people to help them find the right kind of love. And while the dirty dishes in the sink may irk you, it turns out household chores aren’t actually the cause behind most couples’ divorces.
What is the No. 1 divorce cause?
Research shows lack of commitment is the No. 1 cause for couples to get divorced. A 2013 study in Couple and Family Psychology noted that 75% of participants said lack of commitment was a major driver of their divorce; in 94% of the couples surveyed, at least one person cited lack of commitment.
For some, the feelings of commitment decreased slowly over time, while others said their commitment plunged after an event in the marriage, like cheating. One participant said their lack of commitment stemmed from no longer feeling romantic toward their partner; another said their spouse no longer seemed committed to working on their marriage. The next most popular causes were infidelity and too much arguing.
Common causes of divorce
In my experience with thousands of people, here are the top reasons couples divorce (in no specific order, as this varies by state).
Cheating in a marriage is one of the main drivers of divorce. And in today’s connected world, it’s not just physical affairs that happen, but also emotional affairs. There are also countless affairs I hear about that occur because of social media. It’s easier than ever to privately reconnect with an old flame, in real life or on Facebook.
According to Perel, infidelity is of one of the biggest betrayals a marriage can face; for some couples, the marriage will end because of a one-night stand, and for others, it can be multiple offenses. The destruction of trust in an already weak relationship can often be the death knell to the relationship.
2. Money problems
Money in and of itself doesn’t cause divorce. Living in poverty is incredibly stressful, and financial stressors can lead to fighting — which can result in divorce. Differences in how we spend or save money can also be incredibly difficult to navigate in a marriage. One person wants to shop at TJ Maxx, the other at Bergdorf Goodman.
Another money-related issue with the rise of successful women is that they are out-earning their spouses in increasing numbers. This new phenomenon can be tough for even the most enlightened couples — and can cause a relationship to derail as well.
Addictions are often cited as a reason for divorce. The addictions range from alcohol to sex to work to opioids. Addictions can hijack the brain and can become a person's top priority. But if the couple is ready and willing to put the work in and rebuild trust, addiction is something that can strengthen the relationship.
4. Extraordinary situations
I have witnessed the best of marriages crumble due to cancer diagnoses and deaths of children. Extraordinary stressors can test test even the strongest relationships, and if the stress or hardship becomes too much to bear, the marriage can disolve. But healthy couples can withstand (and even grow from) these traumas — if they can truly honor their partner’s needs and method of grieving.
When you're not aligned on the big things in life, like religion, core values, where you want to live, how you want to live — friction is bound to happen. He wants to move to Chicago for his big job, but you want to stay in New York City because your roots are there — and you never discussed this before marriage.
Incompatibility isn’t easy to deal with — especially if one spouse has significantly changed over the course of time. You might need help navigating these discussions with a counselor or therapist. The key is to try to understand why your spouse is suddenly feeling this way, and discuss the issue with kindness, not anger.
6. Irreconcilable differences
Simply put: “We just can’t work it out. There’s no hope.” When there are too many differences or problems that can’t be worked out and the marriage has broken down, there may be grave fights, stonewalling, hostility, anger — you name it.
If you feel like you may be on a slippery slope towards divorce but still have hope to keep it alive, seek out individual and couples’ counseling. It could save your marriage and maybe even bring it to a better-than-ever level.
Which gender initiates divorce more often?
In heterosexual marriages, women are more likely to initiate divorce than men, according to a 2015 study presented at an American Sociological Association meeting. It found that 69% of divorces were initiated by women, compared to 31% for men.
Study author Michael Rosenfeld, Ph.D., sociology professor at Stanford, said in a press release that women reported lower levels of “relationship quality” than men. “I think that marriage as an institution has been a little bit slow to catch up with expectations for gender equality,” Rosenfeld said.
What are the warning signs of divorce?
These signs are:
- Toxic criticism, when you criticize your partner too often, too generally or unfairly.
- Defensiveness, when you focus on excuses instead of taking accountability for your actions.
- Stonewalling, when you shut down the conversation.
- Contempt, when you demonstrate a general dislike of your partner and things that matter to them.
Even satisfied couples may experience all of these communication troubles (except for contempt) from time to time. The good news is through healthy communication focused on kindness and finding solutions, you can address these issues as they come up and make your marriage even stronger.