Written by Dr. Alan J. Hawkins
Several years ago, I accepted a student into our doctoral family studies program. Tamara Fackrell was a practicing divorce attorney and mediator. She was skilled in her practice at helping her clients deal more effectively with ending their marriages and move on with life. She did this responsibly, not hiding the difficulties that faced them during and after the divorce and usually encouraging her clients to be cautious; if there were possibilities for reconciliation, she urged them to explore that possibility. While some divorces clearly were needed, she believed that repairing and saving a marriage was often possible. She told me a few stories of clients who succeeded in repairing their marriages and years later continued to thank her for her help when they first came to her thinking that divorce was their only option.
In all this, she developed a deep curiosity about how individuals and couples go about making the decision to divorce or stay together. She wanted to understand this phenomenon and improve her skills at helping her clients (and finding ways to prevent unnecessary divorces in general). That’s why she submitted to the long, tortuous road of adding a Ph.D. to her already impressive legal credentials.
When she began her studies, the first thing she did was search the research literature for previous studies about how individuals go about making the divorce decision. We were both surprised to find virtually no previous research directly addressing this important topic. Given what we know about the effects of divorce on children, adults, and society, shouldn’t we want to understand the decision-making process better?
So for her dissertation, Tamara began an in-depth, qualitative study of how individuals and couples make the decision to divorce or keep trying to work things out. She interviewed a diverse set of individuals from all across the country in various circumstances and stages of thinking about divorce.
What she found in her interviews fascinated me — nearly all individuals, regardless of their particular circumstances, were wandering in a chaotic, cognitive and emotional wilderness. They were confused and bewildered trying to process their situation and what to do about it. Not surprisingly, their thinking was often irrational and ineffective, and they were unable to provide clarity about what they should do.
Moreover, she discovered that for many an unsatisfying relationship alone did not necessarily push them to divorce because the marriage was a separate consideration from the relationship itself. That is, apart from the relationship, the marriage had its own considerations. A number of major factors contributed to their confusion and were more focused on the institutional nature of the marriage rather than on the relationship per se. For instance:
- Concerns about how divorce would affect their children were usually paramount and made the decision to end an unsatisfying relationship hard.
- Religion, prayer, and hope loomed large for most. They generally embraced the sanctity of marriage and thus a decision to divorce took on much broader and deeper meaning. A simple calculus that the relationship was flawed was not enough for most to decide to end the marriage.
- Beyond religious beliefs, most remained committed to the institution of marriage and did not take their vows lightly; even when the relationship was unsatisfying and sometimes downright dysfunctional they struggled to know what to do.
- Finances were a major source of concern and uncertainty.
- The emotional and physical (health) impact on them was often overwhelming and made it difficult to focus and achieve a rational decision-making process.
- Finally, these individuals still clung to friendship and positive memories with their spouse, which made it more difficult to think about divorce; while the romantic relationship was unsatisfying, there were still affectionate ties that bonded them together.
I suppose none of this per se is headline news. I think we all understand that the decision whether to divorce is probably one of the most difficult decisions an individual ever faces.
But I see important implications from this study. First, we shouldn’t equate an unhappy relationship with the conclusion that divorce is the logical solution. It’s not that straightforward. Many considerations lead people to seriously think about trying to make things work. We shouldn’t ignore those possibilities.
In addition, we should acknowledge—as the participants in Tamara’s study did—that cognitive and emotional capacities can overwhelm, making it hard to think straight about perhaps the most consequential decision we will ever make. By the way, the participants in our study also told us that even though they were overwhelmed and confused, they intuitively sensed that it was necessary to wander in the wilderness for a time before they could move on, as confusing and painful as that was.
But what are we doing as a society to help those wandering in the wilderness? Some might say that is what marriage counseling is for. Many of the individuals Tamara interviewed sought out professional counseling but still were overwhelmed. And some research actually indicates that seeking counseling makes divorce more likely.
As a society, and as a matter of public policy, I think we need to encourage a process that slows down divorce—with appropriate exemptions—and recognizes that people faced with these decisions could use some help and support. There are a couple of models out there worthy of consideration. Both the Parental Divorce Reduction Act, sponsored by the Coalition for Divorce Reform, and the Second Chances Act, sponsored by Dr. William Doherty and former Georgia Chief Justice Leah Sears, spell out ways to help.
These legislative proposals call for a longer waiting period, in essence acknowledging that a certain amount of time is needed to wrestle with all the issues and make an optimal decision—again, with appropriate safety exemptions. In addition, the proposals call for a required educational class for divorcing parents with a curriculum based on solid, balanced research about the effects of divorce and a serious consideration of the possibility of repairing the relationship.
From good research, like Dr. Fackrell’s, I am convinced that the best course of action for adults struggling with the decision to divorce, for their children, who will live with the decision, and for society that ends up paying for some of the problems associated with family breakdown, is a formal process to maximize the chances that they will make a good decision. In many more cases than occurs now, the best decision, especially for couples with children, is to repair the relationship and preserve the marriage