Written by Alan Hawkins, Ph.D.
Occasionally when I’m talking about the need to reform our divorce laws, some question comes up about whether such a thing as an “unnecessary” or “preventable divorce” actually exists. More than one divorce lawyer has questioned me on this. But the answer is yes. And while I know that some divorces are needed to protect spouses and children and even to preserve the moral boundaries of marriage, I also know that a mounting body of evidence confirms that many marriages headed toward divorce could be preserved, leaving children and adults better off as a result.
For instance, most divorces are initiated because people say they fall out of love, have changing personal needs, or feel more entitled, especially more educated individuals. The harder problems of abuse and addiction are given as reasons much less often. A national survey found that the most common reason given for divorce was “lack of commitment” (73%). Other significant factors included too much arguing, infidelity, marrying too young, unrealistic expectations, lack of equality in the relationship, lack of premarital preparation. Domestic violence was cited, too, but in less than 1/3 of cases. So most of the common reasons given for divorce suggest that the relationship may not be fatally flawed.
Other research found that half of divorces come from marriages with low rather than high amounts of conflict. This suggests that there is more potential than often assumed to repair relationships. Another national study followed individuals who were unhappily married for several years and found that 60% of these individuals reported being happily married to the same person five years later; another 20% reported significant improvement. Given time, many relationships do repair themselves, leading experts to conclude that low barriers to divorce may actually induce some unnecessary divorces.
Sadly, with hindsight, many spouses suffer ambivalence and regret about their divorce. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that about 25% of individuals and about 10% of couples (both spouses) going through a mandated divorcing parents class felt that their marriage could still be saved, even at that late stage of the legal process of divorce. Similarly, 30% of individuals and 10% of couples expressed interest in a formal reconciliation service, if it were available. Also, a handful of surveys from various states found about half of divorced individuals wished they had worked harder to try and overcome their marital differences. A study that followed divorced individuals over a long period of time found that, in three out of four divorced couples, at least one partner was having regrets about the decision to divorce one year after the breakup. In my own interviews with divorced individuals, many have confessed that that their decision to divorce was not fully considered. All this fits with the research that shows how divorce is not a reliable pathway to happiness for adults and is tough on children.
I think we need to get serious about exploring ways to help individuals during the divorce process consider sincerely the possibility of reconciliation. If many unnecessary divorces can be prevented, this should improve the well-being of children and adults and reduce burdens on public assistance programs. Law and policy initiatives directly intended to repair relationships and prevent divorce among distressed couples considering divorce have been rare. One exception is in Utah, which now mandates divorce orientation education curriculum that provides research-based information on the effects of divorce on children and adults, a consideration of reconciliation, and resources for repairing the relationship. However, there have been implementation problems with the class, which usually is taken as a last step before finalizing a divorce and thus is likely too late to invite a genuine consideration of reconciliation.
On the other hand, several states are considering legislation proposed by the Coalition for Divorce Reform that would require all couples with minor children, where there is no domestic violence involved, to undertake a 4-8-hour divorce reduction education class followed by an eight-month period of reflection for couples who wish to seek additional help reconciling, before filing for divorce.
For the sake of our families, let’s give these proposals serious consideration.
There may be something to this, because once the attorneys get involved and the divorce becomes contentious, there is often no going back. The hurts get compounded, and the emotions are made more raw, with rational thinking taking a backseat. If there were a way to mitigate the tension for a short period of time, to keep the couple from creating an insurmountable campaign against one another…to give them time to consider the issues after a period of calm… However, my experience with divorce was that tension couldn’t subside, and “normal” and more peaceful co-parenting couldn’t commence, until the divorce was over. The invisible eyes of the court looming over every interaction, when either party is recording every tiny slight- to turn one parent against the other before the judge- renders even the most conscientious and considerate parents unable to see past the current friction to a peaceful future. It is difficult to make good decisions when fatigued and fearful. It is my opinion that prolonging the process can cause more problems in the long run, as conflict increases when the parties insist to wage divorce with win or lose stakes. The judges job is to separate the property, the attorneys job is to Win for their client, and always always always someone comes out the sore loser. Typically the person with fewer resources and less determination to a win, the one most on the defensive against such a force. Some parents just want the kids to be okay, and the divorce to be over, and will therefore sign away the fight. The numbers do not tell the whole picture. Divorce is not as easy as it may seem, and it’s not fair to make rules that further muddy the process. People need a chance to heal and move on. That wouldn’t be lucrative for the attorneys though, so little will change, even with laws in place to mitigate divorce. Divorce, unfortunately, is what some families really need to bring security to the children.