Thinking About Divorce Doesn’t Mean Couples Will Follow Through

By Alan J. Hawkins, Ph.D

Well . . . on a day-to-day basis, that does change because, you know, something might happen and it makes me feel like, okay, I can do this. . . .[T]hen there are days when, its just like, okay, this is just not going to work or we are right back where we started and I thought we solved this but then we didn’t.” — a 31-year-old woman, who has been married for 8 years, explaining her frequent thoughts about divorce in an interview with researchers.

The National Divorce Decision-Making Project [1] recently conducted a national survey of 3,000 married individuals (ages 25-50) that focused on their thoughts about divorce. The survey asked a set of questions about what we labeled “divorce ideation”: what people are thinking about and doing when they have thoughts about divorce. We also conducted in-depth interviews with a small sub-sample of 30 respondents to get a more fine-grained perspective.

Divorce ideation was common in our survey: 28 percent had thoughts about divorce in the past but not recently. Importantly, 90 percent of those who’d thought about divorce said they were glad they were still together. (Of course, those who had already divorced were not included in the survey.) In addition, another 25 percent of married individuals reported that they had thoughts about divorce recently (or in the last 6 months). Sophisticated statistical analyses grouped those who had thought recently about divorce into three categories that we labeled soft, serious, and conflicted thinkers.

Soft Thinkers. About half of these recent thinkers were soft (see Chart 1), which means their thoughts about divorce were infrequent. They had fewer problems and not often of the most serious kind (e.g., abuse, adultery, addiction). Most wanted to work hard to improve the marriage and avoid divorce. They were more hopeful about the future and had more clarity about which direction they were headed —their occasional thoughts about divorce didn’t seem to be an indication of a doomed marriage and an impending divorce.

Serious Thinkers. A little less than half of these recent thinkers were serious thinkers.. They thought about divorce more frequently and reported more problems in their marriage. Basic “connection issues” dominated—feeling like the relationship had lost its sizzle. There was less hope for the future and less commitment to the marriage, but even among the serious thinkers, only a small percentage were throwing in the marital towel. This group was primarily still struggling for clarity about which direction to go.

Conflicted Thinkers. A third, small group – only 2 percent of all those surveyed– were  conflicted thinkers. They reported the highest level of problems, including the most serious kinds of  problems. And they reported the highest levels of conflict and, by far, mental health problems affecting the marriage. About a third of this small percentage said they were done with the marriage, which was by far the highest endorsement of this attitude. But curiously, this small group also still had high scores on relationship hope, and the highest score on struggling for clarity and feeling like a failure if their marriage ended. This was the most religiously devout group of thinkers, which may help explain some of these conflicted thoughts.

 

 

 

(Click to Enlarge)

 

Changes in Divorce Ideation Over Time

We decided to go beyond this snapshot to see how divorce ideation changed or stayed the same over time. So, we surveyed this same group of individuals one year later; 75 percent of Time1 survey participants responded to our follow-up survey, which is a good response rate for this kind of survey.[2] From this follow-up survey and our in-depth interviews with a small subsample of thinkers, we found that divorce ideation is not only common but also dynamic; that is, there’s a lot of change over a year. These findings are summarized in Table 1. [3]

Ninety-six percent of respondents were still married to the same person one-year later, and only 4 percent were separated or divorced. Of those who were divorced or separated at the 1-year follow-up survey, 3 percent had been thinking about divorce at Time 1, and 1 percent had not thought about divorce earlier, indicating that occasionally divorce is unanticipated and fast.

Among the participants who were not thinking about divorce during our first survey (75 percent), stability was dominant. For example, most of them (81 percent) were still not thinking about divorce at the Time 2 survey. However, 1-in-6 of these non-thinker respondents became thinkers by Time 2. And a few (two percent) had even separated or divorced, indicating again that, occasionally, marital dissolution comes unexpectedly and quickly.

Among the Time 1 respondents who were thinkers (25 percent), there was less stability between the two surveys. About two-thirds (64 percent) of those who were thinking about divorce at our first survey were still thinking about divorce at the second survey, but a quarter now reported no recent thoughts about divorce. Still, there was some marital dissolution in this group: 11 percent reported a divorce or separation by the follow-up survey.

Also, we saw a good deal of change among participants in our soft, serious, and conflicted thinkers groups. About half of soft thinkers at Time 1 remained soft thinkers at the follow-up survey, with only about 1-in-7 becoming serious thinkers. Only 1 percent had divorced or separated by the 1-year follow-up survey, too. But again almost a third had transitioned to non-thinkers.

There was more stability among serious thinkers, with 63 percent remaining serious thinkers at the follow-up survey. And nearly 3 percent of Time1 serious thinkers had divorced or separated one year later. But about 1-in-5 had transitioned to non-thinkers.

Six percent of conflicted thinkers had divorced or separated. Nevertheless, one-quarter transitioned from conflicted to non-thinkers, more than was observed for serious thinkers. Almost 70 percent of conflicted thinkers at Time 1 continued to have thoughts about divorce at the follow-up survey, although our analyses of this small number of thinkers (and sample attrition) did not allow us to differentiate transitions between soft and serious thinkers.

In addition, instability in divorce ideation was prominent when looking at personal attitudes about getting a divorce. Only one-third of those who had been thinking about divorce in our first survey reported the same personal attitude about divorce a year later. For instance, among the small number of thinkers who said at Time 1 that they were done with the marriage, just 36 percent reported the same attitude one year later, while 41 percent reported different attitudes that suggested more openness to staying married, including 23 percent who reported not having recent thoughts about divorce. (Note 18 percent of this group had divorced by the follow-up survey.) Among the thinkers who said at Time 1 they wanted to work hard on the marriage, 37 percent had that same attitude one year later, while 44 percent reported no recent thoughts about divorce.

What Can We Learn?

We believe that marriage therapists and educators (and even divorce mediators/lawyers) can use our findings to help individuals and couples thinking about divorce better understand what they are experiencing. Divorce ideation is common. In a culture with widespread experiences with and concerns about the fragility of marriage, it may be unavoidable that thoughts about divorce intrude on people’s consciousness when marital problems arise. Moreover, the idea that marriage is foremost a romantic union further focuses attention on emotional fulfillment as a primary barometer of marital health, setting high expectations for marriage. When these expectations are not fully met, some disillusionment will result and thoughts about divorce surface.

But divorce ideation does not imply divorce action. Thoughts about divorce are just that—thoughts, not decisions. It means ruminating on the marriage and its prospects and whether a divorce should be considered. Many people think about divorce, but these thoughts dissipate or they don’t lead to a decision point quickly. Of course, for some, divorce is needed to end a dangerous or demeaning relationship, and therapists and educators can help clients clarify this for themselves. But for many others, perhaps thoughts about divorce can be the motivation needed to take some action to repair a relationship. In fact, many of the thinkers in our study reported they were taking various actions to try to strengthen their relationship and reported that they were helpful.

Knowing what someone is thinking or not thinking about divorce at one time is useful, but it does not give a clear picture of the future because divorce ideation is a dynamic phenomenon, ebbing and flowing over short and longer periods of time, as illustrated in the quotation at the beginning of this blog from a woman in our study whom we interviewed in depth. Over a year, thoughts about divorce dissipate or disappear for many. Normalizing this may help individuals who are thinking about divorce realize that there doesn’t need to be a rush to premature decision-making about the future of the marriage.

Finally, we also think our study is relevant for policy makers, especially those thinking about divorce reform. Our findings indicate that while many people are thinking about divorce, many of these individuals are experiencing softer problems that likely could be solved with effort and help. Even among more serious thinkers, most still have hopes of saving the marriage and they lack clarity about which direction to go. Most mandated programs for divorcing parents assume a divorce petition reflects a firm decision to end the marriage (on both spouses’ parts) for good cause. This assumption is misaligned with the realities of many divorcing families today. These programs should reflect better the diversity of experiences. While some divorces involve couples ending their marriage because of serious and even dangerous problems, many involve more resolvable issues and petitioners are still uncertain about what direction they should go. Mandated programs should help these couples find resources to help them get more clarity about what to do and ways to repair their marriages, if they want to keep trying to work it out.

*Note: A similar version of this blog first appeared at Family-Studies.org (https://ifstudies.org/blog/change-and-stability-in-how-couples-think-about-divorce) and is reprinted here with permission.

___________________________

[1] This work is a result of a team of scholars with the National Divorce Decision-making Project, funded by the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University: Alan Hawkins, Sage Allen, and David Simpson (Brigham Young University); Steven Harris and Sarah Crabtree (University of Minnesota); Kelly Roberts, Payton Birlew, and Alejandra Gamboa (University of North Texas); Sarah Allen (Montana State University); David Schramm (Utah State University); and Adam Galovan (University of Alberta).

[2] The response rate was 80% of all respondents who could be contacted. We found very few differences between those who responded to the Time2 survey and those who did not respond.

[3]  Table 1. Summary of Change and Stability in Divorce Ideation Over 1 Year.
(Stability categories are bolded.)

Divorce Ideation at                             Divorce Ideation 1 Year

Time1  (N = 3,000)                              Later (Time2) (N = 2,256)            Percent

No Recent Thoughts (75%)               No Thoughts                                        81%                                                                              Recent Thoughts                                   18%                                                                            Divorced/Separated                                2%                                                                                                                                          100%

 

Recent Thoughts (25%)                     No Recent Thoughts                            25%                                                                              Recent Thoughts                                64%                                                                              Divorced/Separated                              11%                                                                                                                                          100%

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