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1.12: Divorce and Separation

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    Chapter 12: Divorce and Separation

    In the United States, Marriage is the legal union of people. Outside of the US, most societies define marriage between a man and a woman or between a man and women (see polygamy among Mormon splinter groups, Muslim cultures, and tribal cultures throughout the world).

    Same-sex Marriage is the legal union of two people of the same sex. Since 2001 when the Netherlands granted same-sex marriage rights to its citizens, about 6 other Western nations have granted same-sex marriage rights. Many countries refuse to give same-sex marriage rights to its citizens. Notice that in modern societies, the state government claims the authority to grant marriage rights. This has not always been true for Western societies. A few centuries ago, tribal or clan leaders, a father, or elderly members of small groups could grant marriages.

    To legally marry in the United States today, one simply goes to the local county or state office and applies for a state marriage license. The state also claims authority in granting divorce rights to couples. Divorce is the legal dissolution of a previously granted marriage. To understand marriage and divorce trends in the US you should think in 3's.

    Every year states grant marriages and divorces in a ratio that adds up to 3. In other words, about 2 marriages are granted by the state for every 1 divorce, even though in 2008 there were over 2.1 million marriages and about 1 million divorces (retrieved 17 September, 2009 from Table A2. Provisional Vital Statistics for the US, Dec 2008; National vital Statistics Report Vol 57, Number 19). Thus, the ratio of 3 breaks down to 2:1 marriages: divorces.

    Most marriages still endure and the odds are that divorce won't happen to most marriages.

    It is a myth that 1 in 2 marriages eventually ends in divorce. There are a few myths about US divorce trends that will be dispelled in this chapter. You might have heard the myth of the “Seven-year itch” where divorce happens prior to or shortly after the 7th year.

    Current government estimates indicate that about 75 percent of couples make their ten-year anniversary in their first marriage(see US Census Bureau, 2004 Detailed Tables-Number, Timing and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2004; Table 2 Percent Reaching Stated Anniversary, By Marriage Cohort and Sex, and Sex for first and Second Marriages, Retrieved 9 Sept 2009 from The myths are false, but divorce does happen more in our day than it did 50 years ago and more people today are currently divorced than were currently divorced 50 years ago.

    Effect of Baby Boomers on the Divorce Rate

    We'll discuss these trends in divorce rates below, but first we must define cohort. A Cohort is a group of people who have some demographic characteristic, typically associated with their birth year or group of birth years. The Baby Boom is a cohort of those born between 1946 and 1964 and represented a never before nor never after repeated high period of birth rates that yielded about 70 million living Baby Boomers today (i.e., 1946-1964).

    There are few different rates for measuring divorce. The most common divorce rate used by the US Census Bureau is the number of divorces/ 1,000 population. Another divorce rate is the number of divorces/1,000 married women.

    Look at Figure 1 below to see the United States marriage and divorce rates/1,000 population from 1900 to 2006. Notice that divorce rates have always been much lower than marriage rates in the US. Also notice that marriage and divorce rates moved in very similar directions over the last century. A slight rise is visible for both after WWI and WWII ended (1919 and 1946). A slight decline is visible during the Depression (1930s) and turbulent 1960s. Most importantly notice that both marriage and divorce rates have been declining in the 1990s and 2000s. Younger people today wait to marry until their late twenties (Delayed Marriage) while other family forms such as single parenting, cohabiting, and three-generational families have increased in the US.

    Figure 1 also shows the trends in ratio of divorces to marriages for the US. In 1900 there was 1 divorce per 13 marriages that year or 1:13, in 1930 1:6, in 1950 1:4, in 1970 1:3, 1980 1:2, 1990 1:2, and 2006 1:2. Today, that means that every year there are to state-sanctioned legal marriages with only 1 state-sanctioned legal dissolution of a marriage.

    One plus two equals three. For the last 12 months ending in December 2008 there was a marriage rate of 7.1 marriages for every 1,000 population and a divorce rate of 3.5 divorces for every 1,000 population. As mentioned above, that translates to over 2.1 million marriages and about 1 million divorces in 2008.


    The National center for Health Statistics reported May 24 2001 that 43 percent of current marriages break up within the first 15 years of marriage (see That was in 2001 and not today. It was the highest official scientifically-based divorce risks estimate given which was a full 7 percentage points shy of the 50/50 figure carelessly thrown around in the media and classrooms.

    Figure 2 shows a more detail description of US divorce rates since 1940 and some of the factors that contributed to them. As you already noticed in Figure 1, divorce rates were relatively low prior to 1940. But, in the 1940s WWII was ongoing and divorce rates moved upward with a one-year spike in 1946. As a reminder, keep in mind that 1946 was the United States' most unusual year for family-related rates. Divorce rates, marriage rates, birth rates and remarriage rates surged during this year while couples married at their lowest median age in US history. Remember that the Baby Boom began in 1946.




    Table 1: Percent Ever Divorced *and Percent Currently Divorced in 2004 by Age Groups US: Boomers Ages 40-59 in 2004 
    Ages 15-19 20-24 25-29 30-34 35-39 40-49 Boomers 50-59 Boomers 60-69 Pre-Boomers 70+ Total
    Males Ever Div. 0.1% 0.8% 5.1% 13.1% 20.7% 30.3% 37.5% 34.1% 20.6% 20.7%
    Males Currently Div. 0.1% 0.7% 3.2% 6.6% 10.9% 14.7% 16.2% 13.0% 6.2% 9.3%
    Females Ever Div. 0.2% 2.5% 7.0% 17.1% 25.6% 33.9% 40.7% 32.3% 17.8% 22.9%
    Females Currently Div. 0.1% 1.7% 4.1% 9.1% 11.7% 16.4% 19.4% 15.0% 7.2% 10.9%

    *Data retrieved 16 September, 2009 from Number Timing and Duration of Marriages and Divorce 2004 released in 2007: Table 3. Marital History for People 15 Years and Over by Age and Sex: 2004

    When scientists and government researchers predict the risks you might have of divorce they use the experiences of currently married people who have and have not divorced-therein lies part of the complication of deriving an “odds or risks of divorce” that we can have confidence in enough to offer advice to the soon-to-be-married. The US has had its worst divorcing cohort ever and some of them will likely divorce again before their death. The trend among younger marrieds is to remain married longer and divorce less…but, what if they collectively have an increase in their marital dissolution experiences?

    What if all of the sudden, millions and millions of currently married couples flock to the courthouse to file for divorce?

    Odds of Divorce

    First, that scenario isn't likely to happen because today's married couples tend to remain married. Second, and this is more important, the national risk of divorce is different from your personal risk of divorce in one crucial factor-you have very little influence in the national rates and a great deal of influence in your on marriage quality and outcome. You and your spouse have much control over your marital experience, how you enhance it, how you protect it from medical, economic, and other stressors that can undermine it, and finally how you maintain it.

    Family scientists refer to Marital Entropy as the principle based on the belief that if a marriage does not receive preventative maintenance and upgrades it will move towards decay and break down. Hearing an evening news report on national divorce trends has much less impact on your marriage than a preventative weekend away together to recharge your romance and commitment which is a marital maintenance strategy designed to combat marital entropy. A proactive and assertive approach to your marital quality is far more influential than most other factors leading to divorce.

    It is true that the longer a couple is married the lower their odds of divorce. Figure 3 shows a visual depiction of how the odds of divorce decline over time. The first 3 years of marriage require many adjustments for newlyweds. Often special mention is the process of transitioning into a cohesive couple relationship with negotiated financial, sexual, social, emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual rules of engagement. Most couples have many of these negotiations in place by years 7-10. Anyone can divorce at any time in a marriage. Since longevity is often associated with the arrival of children, accumulation of wealth, establishment of acceptable social status (being married is still highly regarded as a status), and the buffering of many of life's daily stressors; the average couple finds it difficult and too costly to divorce, even though some features of the marriage are less than desirable (See Levinger's Model below).


    Using Social Exchange theory as a basis for understanding why couples stay married or divorce, you begin to see that spouses consider their cost-to-benefits, rewards-punishments, and/or pros-cons in their decisions. Remember that, Social Exchange Theory claims that society is composed of ever present interactions among individuals who attempt to maximize rewards while minimizing costs. Assumptions in this theory are similar to Conflict theory assumptions yet have their interactistic underpinnings.

    Basically, human beings are rational creatures, capable of making sound choices when the pros and cons of the choice are understood. This theory uses a formula to measure the choice making processes: (REWARDS-COSTS)=OUTCOMES or (What I get out of it-What I lose by doing it)=My decision. In 1979 Levinger and Moles published a chapter in a scholarly anthology wherein they discussed the rational choices made by spouses who were considering divorcing or remaining married. It's been referred to as “Levinger's Model.” Levinger's Model looks like this in the formula: AttractionsBarriers)+/- Alternative Attractions= My decision to stay married or divorce. Look at Table 2 below to see an example of how Levinger's Model clarifies the choices people might make and their perceived rewards and costs.

    Table 2: Levinger's Model of Rational Choice in Divorce
    (Attractions) Magnets=Rewards that stem from being married (Barriers) Walls=Punishments or losses you'd face if you divorced. You'd have to climb over these walls if you divorced (Alternative Attractions) Lures Away From Your Marriage=Something attractive that you could obtain if you were unmarried
    Positive social status Loss of positive status and new negative status-stigma of being 'divorced' Liberated status with freedom to explore relationships with others
    Wealth Accumulation Division of wealth (at least by half) Opportunity to be disentangled with family costs
    Co-parenting Co-parenting with ex-spouse, never truly free from this role Share custody alleviating some degree of burden of parenting
    Sex Much less availability and predictablility of sexual partner Possibility of new sexual partner
    Health Support and Stress Buffer Loss of health support and additional stress from divorce process Different types of stressors and relief from pre-divorce stresses

    Stay Married Formula


    (+)Barriers (-)Lures

    Divorce Formula


    (-)Barriers (+)Lures

    In Table 2 you see that Levinger's Attractions are simply the magnets or rewards that stem from being married. These are the payoffs or rewards that come from being married and include positive social status, wealth accumulation, co-parenting, sexual intercourse, and the health support and stress buffer that marriage typically brings to each spouse.

    Levinger's Barriers are simply the costs or punishments that might be incurred if a married person chose to divorce. These might include losing all the attractions and magnets, changing to a negative status, suffering a division of wealth, co-parenting at a distance and without same-household convenience, experiencing a change/decline in sexual frequency and predictability, and losing the health and stress buffer that married couples enjoy (even unhappily married couples experience some measure of this buffer).

    Levinger's Alternative Attractions are basically lures or something appealing that a now-married spouse might find rewarding if they go ahead and divorce. These might include liberation and the freedom that comes from being single (albeit divorced) and newly available on the market, a financial disentanglement from ex-spouse and at times child care (especially common view held among men who often share custody but pay less in the end for their children), alleviation of parenting when children are with other parent, freedom from unwanted sexual demands and/or possibility of new sexual partner or partners, abandonment of overbearing stressors from marriage.

    I personally have been studying the family for more than 20 years and have seen trends in divorce that reflect the collective society according to Levinger's model. I've also seen the cases of my personal friends where in one case the mother of four left the marriage and let her Ex have full custody, full parental responsibility, and full homemaking under stressful psychological and emotional duress for the children. In her case, the lure of online Dungeons and Dragons gamer with evening real-world roles and escapades offered her an appealing alternative to her perceived mundane mothering routines.

    I've also seen the case of a father of three who left the marriage and forfeited any responsibility, refusing to pay court ordered child support and refusing to spend time with his children (The state garnished his wages). In his case he had a series of girlfriends, a new truck, and a no-rent bedroom in his mother's home. This while his ex-wife was forced onto welfare and has not left poverty these last 14 years since the divorce. The lure for this man was a second childhood of pleasures and self-interests. Generally speaking there are some that find high school reunions, online match making, and the singles social scene to be an appealing lure. Others are more interested in alleviating undesirable and at times even hostile marital living conditions.

    Look at the last two rows in Table 2. They show how you can use a formula to understand the propensity a couple has to divorcing or staying married. In the Stay Married formula, the Attractions and Barriers are high while the lures or low. Translated into Social Exchange thinking-there are many reward in the marriage with many barriers that would prove more punishing if a spouse wanted to divorce. At the same time there are few lures that might draw a spouse away from their marriage.

    The divorce formula is also revealing. Attractions are low, barriers are low, and lures are high. In other words-there are few rewards from being married, low barriers or low perceived punishments from divorcing, with high lures to draw a spouse away from the marriage. One would expect satisfied couples to have the stay married formula while dissatisfied couples would have the divorce formula. By the way, the formula is only descriptive (it tells the state of the union) and not predictive (it cannot tell you what the couple might do). Some with the divorce formula in place remain married for years. A few with the stay married formula become dissatisfied and begin focusing on lures.

    One Social Exchange principle that clarifies the rational processes experienced by couples is called the concept of equity. Equity is a sense that the interactions are fair to us and fair to others involved by the consequences of our choices. For example, why is it that women who work 40 hours a week and have a husband who works 40 hours per week do not perform the same number of weekly hours of housework and childcare?

    Scientists have surveyed many couples to find the answer. Most often, it boils down to a sense of fairness or equity. Because she defines it as her role to do housework and childcare, while he doesn't, because they tend to fight when she does try to get him to perform housework, and because she may think he's incompetent, they live with an inequitable arrangement as though it were equitable (don't get me started on the evidence that supports men sharing the actual roles of housekeepers and childcare providers-see Joseph Pleck, “Working Wives/ Working Husbands” Sage Pub, CA).

    Figure 4 shows a list of more and less commonly used divorce rates. We have already discussed the Crude Divorce rate, Refined Divorce Rate, Proportion Divorced, and Percent Ever Divorced. The adult Divorce rate is much less commonly used because in the United States, most who marry are already 18 and older. The ratio approach to measuring divorce and marriage can be expressed as actual numbers (in 2008 there were over 2.1 million marriages and about 1 million divorces in the US) or as a ratio of 1 divorce/2 marriages in the US in 2006.


    What Predicts Divorce in the US?

    Years and years of research on divorce yielded a few common themes of what puts a couple at more or less risk of divorce. Before we discuss those factors let me point out an uncomfortable truth-all of us are at risk of dying as long as we are alive, likewise, all of us are at risk of divorcing as long as we are married. But, the presence of divorce risks does not imply the outcome of divorce. There is a geography factor of US divorce.

    Divorce rates tend to be lower in the North East and Higher in the West. Nevada typically has the highest of all state divorce rates, but is often excluded from comparison because of the “Vegas marriage” or “Vegas Divorce” effect. Figure 5 shows the Higher divorce rate in Arkansas, US average, and Lower divorce rate in Pennsylvania.


    Simply enduring the difficult times of marriage is associated with remaining married.



    Basically the explanation falls under these types of issues, they are disadvantaged economically, socially, and emotionally, their circumstances have accompanying hardships that would not be present had they waited to age 25 (for example, had they graduated college first and prepared themselves for the labor force and for the emotional complexity of marriage), many scientific studies indicate that there is a refining process of social and intellectual capacities that is not reached until around age 26, and young marriers exchange their prime years of self-discovery (adventure) for marriage. Another major individual choice-related factor is marrying because of an unplanned pregnancy.

    Most babies born in the US are born to a married couple. But, today about 40 percent are born to single mothers of all ages. Even though many of these single mothers marry the baby's father, numerous studies have indicated that they have a higher likelihood of their marriage ending in divorce.

    Many individuals struggle to completely surrender their single status. They mentally remain on the marriage market in case “someone better than their current spouse comes along.” Norval Glenn in 1991 argued that many individuals see marriage as a temporary state while they keep an eye open for someone better, “More honest vows would often be “as long as we both shall love” or “as long as no one better comes along (page 268).”

    Glenn gets at the core of the cultural values associated with risks of divorcing. (See “The Recent Trend in Marital Success in the United States” by Norval D. Glenn Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 53, No. 2 (May, 1991), pp. 261-270) Robert and Jeanette Lauer are a husband-wife team who have not only studied the family but have written a college textbook called Marriage and Family: The Quest for Intimacy (2009, Cengage). They studied commitment and endurance of married couples. They identified 29 factors among couples who had been together for 15 years or more. They found that both husbands and wives reported as their number 1 and 2 factors that “My spouse is my best friend and I like my spouse as a person” (see 'Til Death Do Us Part:

    How Couples Stay Together 1986 by Robert Lauer and also Google Lauer and Lauer and Kerr various years). The Lauers also studied the levels of commitment couples had to their marriage. The couples reported that they were in fact committed to and supportive of not only their own marriage but marriage as an institution. Irreconcilable differences are common to marriage and the basic strategy to deal with them is to negotiate as much as is possible, accept the irresolvable differences, and finally live happily with them.


    Family Scientists have borrowed from the physics literature a concept called entropy which is roughly defined as the principle that matter tends to decay and reduction, toward its simplest parts. For example, a new car if parked in a field and ignored would eventually decay and rot. A planted garden if left unmaintained would be overrun with weeds, pests, and yield low if any crop. Couples who take ownership of their marriage and who realize that marriage is not bliss and that it often requires much work, experience more stability and strength when they nurture their marriage. They treat their marriage like a nice car and become committed to preventing breakdowns rather than waiting to repair them. These couples read and study experts like Gottman, Cherlin, Popenoe, and others who have focused their research on how to care for the marriage, acknowledging the propensity relationships have to decay if unattended.

    A positive outlook for your marriage as a rewarding and enjoyable relationship is a realistic outlook. Some couples worry about being labeled naïve if they express the joys and rewards their marriage brings to their lives. Be hopeful and positive on the quality and duration of your marriage, because the odds are still in your favor. You've probably seen commercials where online matchmaking Websites strut their success in matching people to one another. There have been a few criticisms of online marital enhancement services, but millions have used them. Along, with DVD's, talk CDs, self-help books, and seminars there are many outlets for marital enhancement available to couples who seek them. Very few know that there is now a Website that offers support to marrieds who want to be proactive and preventative in their relationship

    “Doomed, soaring divorce rates, spousal violence, husbands killing wives, decline of marriage,” and other gloomy headlines are very common on electronic, TV, and print news stories. The media functions to disseminate information and its primary goal is to make money by selling advertising. The media never has claimed to be random or scientific in their stories. They don't really try to represent the entire society with every story. In fact, media is more accurately described as biased by the extremes, based on the nature of stories that are presented to us the viewers.

    Many media critics have made the argument for years that the news and other media use fear as a theme for most stories, so that we will consume them. As you observed above, most in the US choose marriage and most who are divorced will eventually marry again.

    True, marriage is not bliss, but it is a preferred lifestyle by most US adults. From the Social Exchange perspective, assuming that people maximize their rewards while minimizing their losses, marriage is widely defined as desirable and rewarding. There are strategies individuals can use to minimize the risks of divorce (personal level actions). Table 3 below lists 10 of these actions.

    Table 3: Ten Actions Individuals Can Take to Minimize the Odds of Divorce
    1. Wait until at least 20s to marry. Avoid marrying as a teenager
    2. Don't marry out of duty to a child. Avoid marrying just because she got pregnant. Pregnancy is not mate-selection process we discussed in the pairing-off chapter.
    3. Become proactive by maintaining your marriage with preventive efforts designed to avoid breakdowns. Find books, seminars, and a therapist to help you both work out the tough issues.
    4. Never cohabit if you think you might marry.
    5. Once married, leave the marriage market. Avoid keeping an eye open for a better spouse.
    6. Remain committed to your marriage. Most couples have irreconcilable differences and most learn to live comfortably together in spite of them.
    7. Keep a positive outlook>Avoid losing hope in you first 36 months. Those who get past the 3-year mark often see improvements in quality of marital relationships and the first 36 months have the most intense adjustments in them.
    8. Take the media with a grain of salt. Avoid accepting evidences that your marriage is doomed. This means being careful not to let accurate or inaccurate statistics convince you that all is lost, especially before you even marry. 
    9. Do your homework when selecting a mate. Take your time and realize that marrying in our late 20s is common now and carefully identify someone who is homogamous to you, especially about wanting to be married.
    10. Focus on the positive benefits found to be associated with being married in society while learning to overlook some of the downsides.

    Finally, decades of studies have indicated that have a history of cohabitation, ever having cohabited, contributes to higher likelihood of divorce. Cohabitation has been studied extensively for the last 2 decades, especially in contrast between cohabiting and married couple. Clear findings consistently show that cohabiting and marriage are two different creatures (see studies by Lawrence Ganong and Marilyn Coleman). Those who cohabit tend to establish patterns of relationships that later inhibit marital duration. In other words people who cohabit then later marry are much more likely to divorce than those who never cohabited.

    As mentioned before, cohabitation is more common in the US today than ever before.

    Cohabiters are considered to be unique from those who marry in a variety of ways, yet the similarities between married and cohabiting spouses suggests that their lifestyles overlap. In both life styles, relationships are formed and often ended. Cohabiters have more than twice the risks of their relationship ending than do marrieds (See 2008, Andrew J. Cherlin, “Multiple Partnerships and Children's Wellbeing.” Austrian Institute of Family Studies, No 89 Page 33-36).

    Cherlin also discussed the uniqueness of cohabiting versus married couples. In sum, cohabiters often feel financially ill-equipped to marry, have lower expectations of relationship satisfaction than do marrieds, and often expect a shorter relational duration than marrieds. Cherlin's main thesis of this article is the stability for children when adult intimate relationships end. Cherlin's concern is well grounded in the statistics of divorce. Figure 7 shows that millions of US children have experienced their parents divorces since 1960 with nearly 1 million children of divorce each year.


    Effect on Children

    Let's think for a minute about what is best for children in terms of their parents remaining married or divorcing. Every home should provide a safe, loving and nurturing environment where basic needs are met and where children are nurtured into the greatness of their potential. Sounds ideal, huh? But, that's not the real-world experience of most children. Familial stresses and hardships are the norm. Being a child of divorced parents does not imply that you are in some way worse off than children whose parents remain married, yet facilitated a harsh and destructive home environment for their children.

    Divorce is a blessing/positive life change for many children and their parents. In fact some children of divorce are very happily married in their own adult relationships because of their sensitive searching for a safe and compatible partner and because they don't want their children to suffer as they themselves did. At the same time, having a parent who divorced probably increases the odds of divorce for most children. Judith Wallerstein has followed a clinical sample of children of divorce for nearly 4 decades.

    Her conclusions match those of other researchers-children whose parents divorce are impacted throughout their lives by it in a variety of ways. The same could be said of children whose parents remained married and raised them in a caustic home environment.

    Whenever a couple divorces (or separates for cohabiters) children experience changes in the stability of their lives at many levels. Many of these children have been through divorce more than once. When their parent's divorce children assume blame for it and believe that they should try to get their parents back together (Like Walt Disney's Parent Trap Movie). In reality the children typically don't influence their parents choices to divorce directly and children are certainly part of the equation, but rarely the sole cause of divorce. On top of that divorce brings change which is stressful by its very nature.

    Children worry about being abandoned. They have had their core attachment to their parents violated. They become disillusioned with authority as they try to balance “they way things ought to be with the way things actually are.” They become aware of ex-spouse tensions and realize that they themselves are the subject of some of these tensions.

    It is better for children to be forewarned of the coming divorce. As they discuss their concerns with you listen and reassure. Make it clear to children that they are not the cause of divorce, that both parents still love them and will always be their parent. Tell and show them that they will be taken care of as best a parent can. Show them that even though divorce is difficult you can work together to get through it. Show them that you and the absent parent will learn to get along and they will too. It's tempting, but ensure that they don't have to serve as messenger or go between or in any other way assume the burdens associated with the dissolved marriage. Table 4 presents some core guidelines for divorcing parents.

    Table 4: Core Guidelines for Divorcing Parents
    1. Respect each other, get along, and come to terms with the nuances of co-parenting (both parents and their new partners and their new partners will be at the kindergarten play)
    2. Set up and maintain predictable routines, especially following mandates in the divorce settlement decree.
    3. Take mediation and adhere to mediation guidelines.
    4. Get professional help for the children where needed.
    5. Ensure the constant safety and well being of your children.
    6. Follow a mutually agreed upon divorce decree.
    7. Help children remember the good times that happened before the divorce.
    8. Expect children to act out in unexpected ways and work with the ex-spouse on being consistent and agreeing on how to discipline consistently. Encourage children to have a strong relationship with both parents.
    9. Get your own professional help and guard against your children becoming caregivers to you.


    This page titled 1.12: Divorce and Separation is shared under a CC BY 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Ron J. Hammond via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.