Top 10 Reasons People Get Divorced
As I write this, a story is unfolding. After twelve years together, including two years in the capacity of husband and wife, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie – collectively and internationally known as Brangelina – are getting divorced. The details are still vague, mostly consisting of sound bites from Pitt (‘I’m very saddened by this, but what matters most now is the wellbeing of the kids’), or from Jolie’s attorney (‘The decision was made for the health of the family’). Yet the scarcity of information is doing nothing to detract from the story’s popularity: it is, at present, the most read story on the BBC News website.
Amidst an escalating international crisis in Syria, violent anti-police protests in North Carolina and emerging details about a famine in Yemen, we might ask why, exactly, Brangelina’s divorce constitutes news. The answer, I’d suggest, must lie in its symbolism. As far as celebrity royalty goes, the bella coppia have come as close to fantasy perfection as possible – demonstrating considerable financial largesse, genuine humanitarian concern, and, recently, stoic resilience in the face of life-threatening illness. In a more relatable sphere, however, their significance could be said to have been as ambassadors for a notably contemporary incarnation of marriage: this will be Jolie’s third divorce, Pitt’s second.
This, in itself, is instructive. A large part of this story’s popularity comes down to its contemporary relevance: divorce rates stand at around 40-50% of first marriages and 60% of second. Divorce amongst the over 50s –termed ‘gray divorce’ – is on the increase, constituting around one-quarter of all divorces in the US. Some call this a crisis; others call it adaptability. Here, it’s called a trend, or cultural phenomenon, and here on Listland we’ve compiled 10 reasons to help both explain and contextualize it.
To understand this reason for marital breakdown, it could be helpful to address some of our preconceptions of marriage as an institution. We, in the West, have inherited a tradition, disseminated through centuries of Christian teaching, that views marriage as natural, sacred and lifelong. Admittedly many of us, neglecting our bibles, aren’t theologically well versed enough to appreciate this. But you only have to think of recent arguments against gay marriage to touch upon the natural and sacred elements. And the idea of marriage being lifelong exists in a proviso we’re all too familiar with, solemnly uttered at the climax of every traditional Christian marriage service: ‘till death to us part’.
The idea of lifelong union is, in fact, by no means universal. Islamic weddings, for example, contain no such stipulation – Islamic law recognizes marriage as a social contract, a relationship to be entered into with sets of obligations and expectations, which, if unmet, can be dissolved through divorce. Likewise, going back further to Ancient Babylon and Rome, divorce was viewed as acceptable (at least not in need of justification) until the intervention of the fourth century emperor Constantine. The heavily patriarchal structure of ancient civilizations, however, made divorce a hellish process for women who could be left destitute, and it is perhaps in this context that we should understand subsequent Christian resistance to the idea.
You don’t have to look far back in history – your grandparent’s generation, perhaps, will do – to see how successfully and for how long Christian tradition has condemned marital failure and imposed a great amount of pressure to seek resolution instead of divorce. But in an increasingly secularized world, it’s perhaps little wonder that we have increasingly less compunction about staying in unsatisfying marriages of our own.
9Because we can.
We, in the 21st century, are remarkably fortunate in being able to choose when, whom and, indeed, if we marry (or, indeed, remarry). Of course there are still arranged marriages – primarily amongst Asian and Eastern cultures – though this is another subject altogether, and one I’m not equipped to go into. But on the whole, in the modern day the right to marriage can widely be considered our individual prerogative.
We are, therefore, also at liberty to opt for divorce, should the marriage not work out. This is a far cry from the past. Going back to almost any other historical period, you’d have aristocratic daughters being married off to aristocratic sons for reasons of wealth, diplomacy or both. And you’d have non-aristocratic daughters being married off to non-aristocratic sons also for wealth – though the dowry would be less modest – or indeed for a blood safety net (excuse the image) with the children able to work when the parents, at the ripe old age of thirty-five, were too old or infirm to do so themselves. Divorce would not only pull apart the social fabric, it would leave you financially unsupported.
In today’s capital flooded world we no longer rely on the marriage dowry for financial security, and social welfare in economically developed countries rids us of the need to procreate to sustain ourselves into old age. This means, ultimately, that marriage has lost much of its initial purpose. It offers comfort and security, certainly, and is the ultimate symbol of love and commitment. But it’s entirely voluntary. Of course, modern issues of child custody and division of wealth are serious and I wouldn’t undermine them. But they are not vital in the old sense, and when things don’t work out we have greater freedom to remove ourselves and move on.
It’s generally accepted that, during the first ‘honeymoon’ months and years of most given relationships, the sex is dynamite – at least, one hopes, in the opinion of those involved. After three years, however, when the biological imperative’s hourglass is starting to empty and especially after seven, when the seven-year itch starts to kick in, couples are faced with a decision: make a go of it and build their lives together or go their separate ways.
A number of practical factors will inform this decision: children, property, investments and shared finances making up just a few. There are also other immaterial factors, some of which are distinctly positive – seeing your partner as a model mother or father, someone with the same ambitions and aspirations as you, someone with whom you can retain self-autonomy and someone whom you love and in whose company you are very happy. Others, however, work may work against the decision to keep going – conflicting parenting styles, divergent ambitions and aspirations, interdependency, too much compromise to the detriment of individual identity and a loss of a physical (or perhaps emotional) connection. Ultimately, as there’s not such thing as a perfect match, whether you marry and proceed to stay in that marriage comes down to what you’re willing to settle for.
Couples who have been married for a long time inevitably accrue considerable shared histories. But in this day and age, it’s becoming the case that only those couples that envisage a shared future will opt to keep their marriages intact.
Obviously, any attempt to work Brangelina into this one would be futile; even if there’s a slight disparity between their respective net worth, it’s relatively negligible. For the vast majority of us, however, our earning power can be an important factor in establishing the overall balance of power within a marriage. Where there is equilibrium, or where both sides reach an agreeable compromise, it sets the economic foundations for a harmonious marriage. Where there is not, there is the potential for turbulence, or possibly even divorce.
Again, this is a very recent development in the history of marriage and divorce. Going back one or two generations, the woman’s primary role would have been as wife, mother and housekeeper while the man’s role would have been as breadwinner. Though in the modern age we have yet to reach gender equality in terms of either pay or opportunities, there have been significant developments with a far greater percentage of women now at work. Indeed, in some spheres women have come to financially outperform men, coming to be known as female breadwinners – a phenomenon that can have remarkably negative effects on a marriage’s dynamics.
Financial incompatibility doesn’t just come in the form of a difference in salary. If both people have a radically different idea of how to spend money (especially if they haven’t necessarily earned it themselves), this can be particularly problematic. The important thing, if there is this imbalance, is to clearly communicate your feelings and expectations to your spouse. Failure to do so can have negative consequences for a marriage’s longevity.
From self-help books to online manuals, there’s a reason why the market is saturated with literature offering advice and guidance on how to communicate effectively in marriage. Communication, as the saying goes, is key: from maintaining a loving, affectionate and positive day-to-day relationship through complimentary and positive feedback to setting out future plans and goals, whether it be as father and mother or husband and wife. Yet it’s also vital to find time to have normal, regular conversations; to touch base with one another, inquire about each other’s personal interests (which, after all, make us who we are), and to mentally stimulate each other as, presumably, was the case during the relationship’s honeymoon period.
It’s when spouses fall into bad communicatory habits – such as constantly challenging and criticizing, yelling, and, perhaps worst of all, evading – that marriages can suffer. Failure to address such problems, either internally as a couple or with the intervention of a trained third party, can lead to irreconcilable differences that may ultimately spell divorce. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that communicatory issues aren’t products of the later stages of a marriage. Inabilities to resolve certain (not all) conflicts originate from a failure to draw a line and establish boundaries early on. So you might to well to think of commitment to communication as being the same as commitment to your marriage – as something long-term and worth investing in.
Click on almost any web-link explaining why people get divorced and you’ll soon be told that sexual infidelity factors a lot less than you’d think. A recent national survey reports that 55% of couples filing for divorce cite infidelity as a reason. But figures can be misleading, especially when diagnosing the reasons for a divorce, and with something like infidelity, you have to think how many instances aren’t explicitly reported.
The fact that infidelity does factor is little wonder when we consider the times. It’s no longer at the office, gym or bar that you have the opportunity to meet people, should you be looking. Within seconds of being online you can be fully immersed in websites such as Ashley Madison which provides a service (the discretion of which has been somewhat conspicuously brought to attention in recent years) for people looking to have extra-marital affairs. Ashley Madison has famously set itself apart by its promise of privacy, but there are hundreds of other matching and dating apps and websites (Tinder, OkCupid, match.com, Bumble) some of which target a specifically married audience (Marital Affairs, Married Secrets, Victoria Milan, Hush Affair, Illicit Encounters, Find New Passion, Gleeden… the list goes on).
Infidelity is a complex word. Coming from the Latin infidelitas, broadly meaning ‘lack of faith’, it passed through the Old French vernacular and Middle English to signify what it does today. We think of this word as meaning an act of betrayal in a principally sexual context, but this is our cultural baggage. Perhaps we would do well to think of it within a broader context, and remind ourselves that infidelity starts not with the act, but with the intent.
Going back to the still-breaking and ever-developing story or Brangelina’s divorce, according to celebrity magazine and telephone game online ambassador TMZ, Angelina Jolie has told ‘sources’ that she’s filing for divorce because of Brad Pitt’s cannabis abuse and anger problems. Ignoring the fact that this claim is, as yet, completely unsubstantiated, it does bring to the fore a very real problem in many of today’s marriages that can ultimately lead to their dissolvement.
In a marriage, drug addiction or alcoholism can be considered synonymous with human third-party involvement, or an extra-marital affair. There is, of course, a substantial difference. Somebody having an affair has greater autonomy over their decision making than someone with a chemical or psychological addiction. Or to put it another way, there’s a reason there aren’t Ashley Madison rehab centers. Yet it isn’t hard to understand why substance abuse carries significant enough connotations of infidelity to lead to divorce. Substance abuse constitutes infidelity insofar as the abuser is betraying the foundations of the marriage. They’re not acting in the capacity of partner, of parent or of companion in a way necessary to maintain a viable relationship. If they’ve recently come under the dark cloud of substance abuse, they’re not going to be the same person who embarked on the marriage in the first place. Maintaining a loving relationship with someone who has become so dependent that they require trained professional help is a considerable task. Anyone who is in this position should ask themselves whether, for their own sake or that of their family, it’s something their up to doing.
3Stepparents and In-laws
If there’s one negative familial trope that features throughout the canon of western folklore, literature and culture, it’s that of the wicked stepmother. From Euripides’ Phaedra to the Grimm Brother’s thirteen plus- instances of evil stepmothers (most famously featuring in Snow White, Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel) to Nanny McPhee, fictitious stepmothers have always played a crucial role in making life miserable for their stepchildren (and, presumably, for the children’s fathers too).
There’s a reason for this. Stepmothers, anthropologically, embody the other. They are brought into a family often without broad familial consent, and the absence of blood-ties makes their position – especially when it comes to parental discipline and authority – ambiguous: so much so that entire self-help manuals have been written dealing with how to do just this. Conflict, however, doesn’t only arise form differences. The bond that may unite members of the family, whether it’s a child’s love for a parent or a stepparents love for their spouse, may also divide them, forcing family members to compete for affection – often establishing the foundations for a doomed marriage.
Stepparents are not the only outsiders who can unbalance a marriage though. Your in-laws and your partner’s extended family offer either the prospect of love, comfort and support if things are well with them, or conflict, factionalism and potential isolation from you partner if things are not. This is particularly true of in-laws whose affection you might have worked hard to earn and with whom your partner may ultimately side if your marriage is pushed to extremes. To slightly misquote Harper Lee, at least you can choose your friends…
2The realization that we’re ultimately alone in the world.
It was Orson Welles, the great American actor writer and director, who famously said: “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” This dictum, along with that of Hunter S. Thompson, has become famous for its quotability, but it doesn’t necessarily represent originality of thought. The solitary state of human life is a theme that can be traced back to the origins of Buddhist philosophy, if not further.
It isn’t so much the cynical/existentialist-type-philosophy that’s of the most interest to us here though. The most important part of Welles’ dictum is instead his idea of ‘illusion’. In using relationships to fill voids in our lives, we’re essentially put in the role of a consumer. We may enter into a friendship or a relationship to sustain this illusion. We may even enter into a marriage. But in our individual pursuit of happiness, we’ll ultimately work in our own self-interest. This can pave the way for a lack of commitment towards relationships and towards lifelong adherence to the contract of marriage. And contract, in this context, is particularly apt for today’s consumer driven world; for whatever purpose, they are things we are told that we need, things we are told not to break, yet conversely, things we may find ourselves one day looking to upgrade.
1 High rates of per capita margarine consumption.
I know – we’re just as shocked as you are by this one. This reason may not manifest itself among the most common causes of divorce at therapy sessions across the country, and it’s certainly stayed under the radar by failing to surface in any national survey. But, spurious as the correlation between a fall in margarine consumption across the US and a fall in divorce rates (at least in the state of Maine) may seem, we’d do well to remind ourselves that, to quote Mark Twain, figures don’t lie. Clearly, the decision taken in households across American to invest more of their disposable income in higher quality fatty butter has done more for people’s marriages than the millions spent on marriage counseling services.
Of course, I’m not being serious. What could be taken completely out of context as unquestionable correlation is clearly nothing more than humorous coincidence. What I’m actually doing here – and you’ll be the judge as to whether I’m doing it effectively – is making the point that, in trying to understand why people get divorced, we shouldn’t rush for quantified data. Reasons for divorce are far too individualistic, sometimes even beyond the comprehension of those immediately involved until viewed from the safe distance of hindsight. Divorce can occur because of one major reason, no major reason, or the combination of several lesser reasons. Or, going by the graph, it can occur because of high rates of per capita margarine consumption. Come to think of it, was it ‘figures don’t lie, but liars figure’…?
The reasons given in this article for why people get divorced are neither comprehensive nor conventional (if it’s convention you’re after, try clicking here, here, or here). As with all aspects of human psychology and interaction, there are countless and often unperceivable motives at play in determining how relationships function or, in the case of divorce, cease to function. The purpose of this article has been to contextualize the institution of marriage and divorce, to challenge some of our preconceptions relating to them, and, hopefully, to inform and entertain.
For anyone wanting to gain further insight into the rationale behind getting a divorce, ways to recover from a divorce or impartial, valuable advice relating to the process of divorce, the Internet is a treasure trove of information. There are countless pages set up by groups ranging from governmental bodies to law firms, and varying in content from advisory services to self-help resources. Those looking for accounts detailing personal experiences would do well to browse forums such as reddit, where anonymity, combined with the potential for interaction or support, is arguably more useful a tool than any collected, quantified data. For those going through the process itself, relying on the support of friends and family is obviously essential for getting through this difficult time, but seeking the impartial advice of a trained professional – be it a divorce counselor or divorce specialist lawyer – can be invaluable in providing practical help and guidance.