Helping Couples in the Divorce Decision-Making “Wilderness”

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

Post By beverlyw (98 Posts)



  1. Tamara Fackrell’s study accurately states that couples going through divorce “were wandering in a chaotic, cognitive and emotional wilderness. They were confused and bewildered.” She’s also right that couples with children and those who are religious remain committed to marriage as an institution.

    So what? The fact is America has the highest divorce rate in the world – triple that of Britain or France. After 5 years, 23% of Americans have divorced, and only 8% of British or French. Why? Britain requires a delay of five years if one spouse opposes the divorce, and France, six years. That allows a blot of time to reconcile. By contrast, 25 U.S. states have ZERO waiting periods, such as Florida, Texas and Minnesota. Therefore, Alan Hawkins is wise in suggesting that states consider changing their laws with the Second Chances Act which did pass a House committee in Minnesota, or the similar Parental Divorce Reduction Act, proposed in several states. I led a workshop on these reforms at the American Association of Christian Counseling last week. However, that is a long-term answer, of no immediate help.

    Neither Ms. Fackrell nor Dr. Hawkins suggested how couples in current crisis can heal their marriages now. I wrote a column published by DivorceReform/info outlining the best quick answer: a weekend retreat called Retrouvaille, which saves 4 of 5 marriages in crisis. Couples should go to, click on their state, and see when the next weekend will be held. Since these are run by volunteers donating their time, they are not held as frequently as one might like, but are nearly monthly in Washington DC, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Detroit.

    Another short-term answer is that my wife and I regularly conduct Marriage Savers Webinars, in which we train churches to administer the PREPARE-ENRICH inventory that can reduce the divorce rate for premarital couples to less than 10%. A church can train up to four Mentor Couples for only $195 plus materials. Our next training will be on May 5.

    A medium-term answer is to create a Community Marriage Policy, a step taken by 11,000 churches in 229 cities, with the help of Marriage Savers, an organization my wife and I have created. An independent study by the Institute for Research & Evaluation reported that on average, Community Marriage Policies push down city-wide divorce rates by17.5% in seven years, and a tenth of CMP cities slashed divorce rates by 48% to 70% such as Austin, Kansas City, KS and its suburbs, Salem, OR, Modesto, CA and El Paso.

    Community Marriage Policies also reduce the cohabitation rate by one-third compared to similar cities in the same state, and some CMP cities are seeing their marriage rates rise.

    Call me for details, 301 469-5873, or write [email protected].

  2. Thank you so much for this. I, too, am fighting the good fight against divorce as the logical response to an unhappy marriage. In North Carolina, couples have to wait 366 days before filing for divorce. Unfortunately, they don’t have to do anything in that time. Most don’t seek counseling and those that do often put it off until things are really bad. One of the hardest things for me is talking to those who know someone’s marriage is in trouble but don’t feel comfortable getting involved. Successful marriage creates wealth and better health. Divorce creates upheaval and increases dependence on social services. It shouldn’t be accepted so blithely.

  3. Bravo to Tamara for this research. So many perspectives to weigh in on this scary subject of divorce. One thing’s for sure, a cooling off period indicates wisdom for the society and for families. Another important piece of the puzzle is premarital and marriage education– an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure. The more we realize that divorce affects everyone, the more we will likely take proactive steps to strengthen marriages, offer support, and encourage the waiting periods.

  4. Thank you so much Alan. One of the most difficult time of life is going through separation or divorce. Before doing crazy things and selfish thing, please do think of your children first. Thanks again for sharing…!!!

  5. Does her study give those of us lost in the abyss advice? I’m so lost.

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