(Why do so many women file for divorce?
liznotes on the Divorce Reform Movement. )

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People divorce because they can. This is a very different issue from the question which asks: what factors make one or both partners in a couple no longer wish to remain married; i.e. what is the cause of marital breakdown. But that in turn may still not be an answerable question. For every "cause" there is a "cause for the cause." In my own law practice of twenty years, I've found that the person initiating the filing for a divorce typically knows exactly why he or she is making this choice within a large context of considerations and factors. It is the other party who, while acknowledging "problems" in the marriage, has NOT filed, may NOT have perceived the alternatives to remaining married as preferable to the marriage, and thus can only provide a vague response when asked for the "cause of the divorce" or the breakdown of the marriage.

This article was written in response to the many times I am confronted with the postulate that women (mostly -- they file for most of the divorces) and sometimes men seek the dissolution of their marriages for frivolous reasons.

There is a "divorce reform movement" afoot that believes that many divorces can and, more importantly, should be prevented, and this movement currently is casting about for solutions to fix the "factors" that ostensibly will be identified as soon as answers are found for the question: why do people divorce.

genes make the manMarriages (or more accurately, marital relationships) that are untenable or merely less desirable than conceivable alternatives can and do exist in societies in which there is little or no legal divorce. But neither the typically posed question nor the real question really makes sense upon critical examination. What constitutes a viable marriage (a marriage that two persons both continue to believe to be better than available alternatives) will in turn depend upon married individuals' expectations of marriage and what they insist on getting from marriage, versus what the other options are. Those expectations in turn will go right back to what is perceived to be available or possible in lieu of being in the marriage. People make choices to get married, stay married or become divorced based upon what they believe are the rewards or detriments they will incur in making those choices in lieu of others that are available to them.

You won't find a clear answer as to why people divorce because to date, there has been no consensus on what constitutes a viable marriage -- in the abstract. (What are the causes of marriage?) What's "good enough" is relative and depends on innumerable considerations and factors.

Society's historical answer to maintaining marriages that are less than blissful (perhaps most of them) has been to force women through a variety of economic, legal, and social measures to get into and then stay in marriages, i.e. to make alternatives either extremely undesirable or largely unavailable. Where being married in the abstract has been successfully posited as more desirable than available alternatives, this still says nothing much regarding some objective measure of subjective happiness of persons within particular marriages.

In the United States, the average time before divorced persons remarry is 2.5 years. People DO want to be married; but there's not much way to engineer to whom they want to be or remain married. You can't force someone to be in love with another, e.g.

Studies of marital counseling outcomes indicate that no amount of therapy can make persons who are unhappy in their marriages and also thinking clearly about the pros and cons of staying or leaving want to stay, notwithstanding preferable available alternatives -- after all, a primary purpose of good psychological therapy is to assist persons to objectively recognize their feelings, realistically assess their situations and their options, and make reasoned decisions.

So... really the divorce reform movement ultimately must come down to making the alternatives less desirable or unavailable (primarily for women, who file 70-80% of the divorces.)

It will always be that party in a marriage who files for divorce who has reached a point at which a weighing of all considerations means that it is better to be divorced than to remain married. This is a far different question from what causes the breakdown of a marital relationship, and in turn THAT question begs the question of what constitutes -- for any given individuals in their unique circumstances -- an "adequate" marital relationship.

The divorce reform movement is extremely dangerous (I discuss it some at on the National Fatherhood Movement) because in essence it says: when one party in a marriage is unhappy and doesn't want to be there, let's induce (or convince or FORCE) that party to stay by making sure that the available alternatives are (or appear to be) worse. And this is so because, when all is said and done, there's just no way for any law or social policy to retroactively erase hurt feelings, fulfill personal dreams and expectations about love and companionship, or dictate to any individual what that individual is entitled to in the way of happiness in her or his one life on this earth.

One cannot actually address the issue of the viability of marriages in the abstract. There are no valid "studies" on the causes of divorce because we are talking about thinking human beings' personal choices in a larger context of available options, expectations and values.

So asking "why do people get divorced," or "what are the causes of divorce" almost is nonsensical. We are talking about rational human behavior in the context of personal preferences and relationships, not consequential events. What's fat to Jack Sprat is food for his wife, etc. There is no objective basis to determine necessary or sufficient causation. There are many OPINIONS on the subject and all of them are arguably valid at the same time all of them are equally absurd. Scientifically, at best there can only be statistical collections of people's own perceptions and beliefs as to their reasons (which as any psychologist can tell you, can be far from accurate) for seeking a divorce (or their understanding of why their spouse sought one, even less accurate), and an attempt to understand why some persons might choose divorce.

There are some references below by way of illustration. In context, most essentially are but a compendium of opinions, although some of them call themselves "studies" and try their best.

For those of you who are scholars or lawyers, come on: you need not let someone else, in this case the "public" or the popular media or politicians, frame an issue for you and then assume that you must entertain discussion or study of the issue as framed -- no matter how unworkable -- and however flawed, illogical or ridiculous, and feel constrained to approach it on its flawed premises and terms. To recap:

1. Divorce is a legal remedy. The "cause" of this legal remedy is that a human being consciously chooses to seek it. The availability of divorce AS a remedy is the immediate and proximate "cause" of a person's considering it as an option, and so human choice is the immediate and proximate "cause" of a person's filing for divorce.

2. A better (but only a little better) question is: what moves a person's choices; what causes a person to seek a divorce. We need no research to answer this. A person will seek a divorce when that person's consideration of all the facts and circumstances of that person's current married life yields a perception that that person (or person's family, to the extent altruistic motives weigh in here) will be better off, that that person's desires and value system will be better served, pursuing another (available) option. (What options, what alternatives are available?)

3. Whether another option is likely to be better (yield a happier, safer, or more rewarding life) will depend upon NOT ONLY what the married state is like, BUT ALSO what those alternatives are, and these in turn will move what that person expects or desires in that person's marriage and one life. So... excluding those persons who are not thinking clearly, if we cannot make a particular marriage "better," then we either have to convince people to be happier with less, or (falsely?) to perceive that marriage as the ultimately more satisfying choice (marriage exaltation propaganda), OR we have to eliminate the alternatives.

WHERE THERE IS SUCH A THING AS FREE WILL AND FREE RATIONAL HUMAN CHOICE, it is an absurdity to talk about a "cause" of divorce.

There really is no such thing as a "cause" of divorce any more than there is such a thing as a cause of marriage, a cause of deciding to become a sociologist or a plumber, or a cause of preferring Ethan Allen decor to Danish Moderne.

AT BEST: one MIGHT be able to identify situations which are more likely to tend to result in persons believing that they are better off getting divorced than remaining married. And one of these factors clearly WILL be women's independence, options to go it alone, and the legal availability of divorce.

You will NOT find that "most marriages that end in divorce are abusive," at least in the sense in which we generally perceive "abuse" to be "gross" or obvious abuse. It is, however, arguable that in many ways marriage itself is inherently "abusive" in that it is a social structure that still carries vestiges of its women-enslaving and subsuming origins. (Consider the still-common practice of women's losing their very names upon getting married. There is considerable social cognitive dissonance on this "little" issue alone. But it's really not so little -- consider how many men carry on about having their wives and children be known by the last name of THEIR preference.)

Thus, because of deeply ingrained, learned and habitual anachronistic social expectations and gender roles within marriages, marriage in the reality of its practice does indeed conflict with notions of gender equality. In this way, often on a subtle level in cumulative effect, the state of marriage frequently is subconsciously felt by many women as demeaning and subordinating. This is, purely and simply, something that men just do not generally fathom.

("No, we really are NOT okay with being #2, however mildly, unconsciously, or benignly this continuously manifests in so many itty, bitty ways -- like the salesman at the dealership looking to the husband for an "okay," or our names always coming second on the envelope, or our children not carrying on OUR name 'heritage.' We are full-fledged equal adults who expected to treated as such, and we did not expect that to change when we got married. At first we did not notice or care much about all the little signals of differential status. But sometimes the "dawning" is slow -- it particularly grates when we are not so young and cute anymore, when we have achieved a measure of age and success and status in our own right, and when the compensating benefits of being protectively adored as 'the little woman' diminish, or just have vanished with the presence of discord from other problems in the marital relationship.")

As women gain more and more options to being married, they can and will demand (and ARE demanding) within marriage more and more compensatory benefits to make up for this detriment and they will tolerate less (cheating, arguments, having to carry a bigger housework burden, and so forth) that makes them unhappy. But happiness is relative.

You also will NOT find much credible scholarship on the issue of "why people divorce" for the very same reason we have largely eliminated most requirements of fault-based divorce: at what point does one say, in a multi-causated domino-like stream of factors each creating affects that in turn breed their own effects, all of which ultimately mean nothing in the absence of the exercise of human free will -- a ha, THIS is the cause of the divorce. One canNOT say. There is no such point. At best, there is "the straw that broke the camel's back."

So, much as I hate to have to admit it, there is much validity in the religious rightster and father's rightster reactionary claims that women get divorced because of "no-fault divorce," or because of feminism, or because of the easing of restrictions on divorce and social stigmas surrounding it. It is accurate to say that women file for divorces simply because they CAN. But they do so in consideration of what their current life situation is, what may be possible as an alternative, and their desires and values, all coming into play in a very large and amorphous context. So it also is equally accurate to say that women file for divorce for good reasons -- for ONLY good reasons.

(Dear Abby: Now that my husband is retired, he spends his days reading, watching television, or playing golf... If anything, my own workload has increased. I want to know: when is it my turn to 'retire'?")

We all make choices based on comparing what we have to what we could have in a thoroughly relative state.

No absolutes will answer the "why" question for any particular individual. For example: "cheating" does not cause divorce. What it does is emotionally hurt one spouse, set in motion lies, break trust (what psychologists call "affective" or "relationship" reasons for divorce.) HOWEVER, what "caused" the cheating?

Not uncommonly, cheaters have rational reasons for their behavior which in turn are based on claimed other problems in the marital relationship predating the cheating. (Few will say "She's wonderful, I was perfectly content, and I'm just a greedy, self-centered jerk who wanted to have my cake and eat it too.") Cheating is frequently an escapist (typically male, but not always) behavior in reaction to problems. It isn't a well-adjusted response, but even so, the cheating arguably wasn't the "first" problem in the marriage, even IF that first problem was that he "is a greedy, self-centered jerk." So wouldn't the cause of the cheating then be the "real cause" of the divorce? Maybe... but then what caused the cause...? And whose perceptions of what was going on are correct? Conversely, what if the compensatory benefits of the marriage nevertheless outweigh the emotional hurt (he's very rich and otherwise great with the kids, or he forgave her a prior transgression, etc.)  No divorce. Or what if he's merely marginal and there really are no compensatory benefits but she can be guaranteed misery, poverty or loss of her children if she chooses divorce. Again, no divorce. Or what if divorce takes fifteen years to achieve and by that time all hope for a better life effectively will be vanquished. No divorce. Or what if she honestly forgives him, but because trust is just never restored it eats away at the marriage a little at a time over a subsequent period of time until years later, something else occurs which is "the last straw."

So cheating here doesn't cause divorce. It is the same with any factor that can be posed.

("We did everything together when we were first married; we were convinced that our marriage would be one of equals. In fact my income was higher than his. Here I am on a Saturday morning six years later. How did it happen that I'm stuck in the house with a sick infant, a whining toddler, the breakfast dishes and three loads of laundry, while he can get a phone call to play tennis with someone else at 9 a.m. and cheerily just walk out the door ten minutes later?")

In addition to the quarrel I have with the inquiry "why do people get divorced," I also contest the premise that there is some "should" out there that we as society must accept with regard to what is "normal" and how we "should" live our lives, i.e. that in some kind of abstract it actually can be said that divorce is bad and long-term marriage is good. A good marriage is good! (If you think you're in one and that's your opinion.) But "good" is a value judgement, not an absolute. Moreover, when individual marriages and reasons for individuals' choosing divorce are looked at on a case by case basis, it is extremely difficult to say to anyone (if possible at all), that that individual made a "bad" decision. So don't you buy into the trap (and you will be trapped) that unthinkingly agrees with the religious right illogic that women's choices to get divorced are frivolous, i.e. if they divorce a man who is not abusive, then they are foolish or bad women who must be constrained.

There is no epidemic of divorced women who made the decision to file for divorce who now are saying: I should not have done that; I should not have filed for a divorce; I stupidly and frivolously was induced to file for a divorce merely because the option was available and it was a mistake. Here and there, maybe a few. But in the main?

Studies show that most women -- even when they were NOT the instigators of their marital breakups -- are measurably happier for being divorced, once the throes of litigation have passed and change is settled. The divorced disgruntleds -- a notable portion of them men, and a notable portion of them in the religious right anti-women's-rights movement and/or father's rights movements, and a notable portion of them abusers and controllers or otherwise the cause of the breakdown of their emotional marital relationship -- resent not having been granted the power to force their spouses to stay with them. But the spouses who divorced them did so after fully considering that the divorcers' own lives would be the better for it. And since no law in the land CURRENTLY can force one legally competent law-abiding adult human being to reside with another (let alone sleep in that other's bed), consider what "divorce reform" really means with regard to the engaging of techniques and devices and schemes of law to induce those individuals who otherwise would want to be divorced to "voluntarily" remain "married."

It will make them think harder about getting divorced? Bunk. This is paternalistic crap that presumes that women often make rash decisions on life-altering matters that they have not thought through thoroughly, even agonized over for long periods of time.

It will force them to "try harder" to work out their differences? Bunk. It's been proved through research that women typically don't give up on their marriages except after "trying everything" first to "fix" them, and that many women who file for divorce in fact never wanted to "be divorced" in the first place. (See Myths and Facts About Motherhood and Marriage.) And why should we be surprised? In our culture, it's often women moreso than men who, prior to experiencing it, want to be married! (Are they capricious loonies? Is this some kind of delayed post-partum psychosis? Or were they fed Cinderella stories too often in childhood...)

Under Louisiana's Covenant Marriage Law (if it's even practicably enforceable), any spouse can still move out and establish a residence elsewhere, and even obtain a legal "separation from bed and board." For no particular reason. And... suppose no divorce thereafter were obtainable. WHO would this benefit? WHAT would this accomplish? It benefits nothing and no one, and at best, merely prevents remarriage. People don't generally get back together permanently after legal separations, and if they are among that rare group who are inclined to, they can join those small numbers of couples who actually remarry after a divorce.

Suppose we also deny these folks the right to obtain a legal separation and walk out with their share of the assets? Well, then those spouses who control the assets will be able to leave and those who don't, won't (and also can be abandoned.) We used to have these laws, and they hurt a lot of women and children. They constrained no men, however. At worst, men who desired to leave just left and ended up divorced, too.

These laws won't do squat to "keep families together." So take a look at what "divorce reform" really means when measures are enacted that have "some teeth in them." The father custody aka joint custody crowd, e.g. (See liznotes on the National Fatherhood Movement and the Father's Rights Movement.)

Some argue that the married person who is against the divorce "should be" entitled to as much right to enforce the marriage as the other is to discard it. But this would contradict an underlying premise we have in the United States which founds our most basic "rights" on personal freedom. Where different individuals' "rights" conflict, we come down on the side of a personal freedom that does not interfere with others' automony and well-being. Thus the expression "your right to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose." Thus, do we not enforce personal services contracts with injunctions requiring the continuing provision of those services. Indentured servitude is illegal. And thus, do we not force businessmen who want out of a business partnership to remain in it (for life) because the other partner believes his happiness or economic fortunes might suffer going it alone -- in fact, we readily dissolve the business partnership and settle up the partnership accounts.

If those individuals who have sought to end their marriages are not en mass clamoring for changes in the laws that would have protected them from themselves and their own allegedly frivolous and regrettable judgement... who is anyone else to so arrogantly decide that these persons OR their families would have been better off to have been constrained? And, what kind of "caring" about people and their lives is it to hypocritically seek to remove from individuals those currently available choices that ARE open to them and that IN FACT improve their lives? This is not about "caring," and divorce reform is not at all about helping anyone to live a more rewarding life.

Women's reasons for filing for divorce -- whatever they may be -- are not "frivolous." No human being's rational choice on an issue of this magnitute is frivolous because quite simply: NO one else has the right to say to a woman -- or to ANY person -- "your life as it is now is good enough for you."


Here's a mismash of opinions and research of sorts on the "causes" of divorce (note very little scholarly research -- "what causes divorce" is a question typically found in undergraduate sociology programs, among the religion preachers, and in political circles -- no research scholar worth her or his salt would fail to see the incredibly illogical and useless framing of this question. The few legitimate scholars who have approached this subject readily qualify their studies as studies of individuals' perceptions of their reasons for divorce, or concentrate on compiling demographical statistics of divorcing populations (which are of limited use in "divorce prevention," or in identifying "causes" of divorce, since many of these demographics are inalterable, and none of them are "predictive" in any event.)

-- "In Britain in 1995, 26% of divorces were granted on grounds of adultery; 44% for unreasonable behaviour; 23% after a two year separation by mutual consent; 6% after a five year separation and fewer than 1% on the grounds of desertion. Identifying the point of 'irretrievable breakdown' is difficult, and many factors contribute to divorce..."

-- Here's a paper that conflates "cause of divorce" with "cause of marital breakdown" -- "The divorce rate in the United States is believed to be the highest in the world. There are many causes of marital breakdown, but the following seem to be the main ones: Changing gender roles, romantic love, sexuality and personal fulfillment." .html

-- Research indicates that 37 percent of men and 20 percent of women cheat on their spouses. When one partner commits adultery, the other one may be heart-wrenching decision, especially if children are involved. A spouse who has been cheated on must decide whether or not the marriage is salvageable, or if they want to salvage it at all. According to a 1997 study by psychologists at the University of North Carolina, "More than half of the marriages that experience infidelity end in divorce."

-- Affairs and incompatibility are the leading causes of separation and divorce, according to a new poll snapshot released by website In a sample of more than 400 individuals asked to rate the causes of their marriages' failure, half the respondents (50%) indicated that their marriages had been affected by affairs. According to the poll, about 14% of those surveyed said that an affair was the number one cause of their marriages end, a number that was surpassed only by incompatible personalities (15%). Between them, they are the two leading causes of separation and divorce, at least in our sample.

-- Of all the aspects of divorce statistics covered in this report, the order of causal frequency is the sketchiest. Although several separate studies were used, none concluded with any degree of certainty what problems most often ruined marriages, because leading causes changed with age, demographics, prior marital status, economics, personal attitudes, cohabitation, and children. The following is a definitive list of the twelve most cited marital issues... on Divorce: Cause and Effect

-- "...for women in Beijing, the growing divorce rate is a reflection of a new social and economic freedom of the rising expectations that women bring to marriage. The damaging effects of a remarkable increase in adulterous affairs, resulting in more than 70 percent of divorces initiated by women, with the most common reason given is that a husband has had an affair. Extra-marital affairs have become one of the major causes of divorce in China today..." 302.html

      [Lots of men (typically) claim "lack of communication" or vague relationship breakdown as a factor involved in their divorces rather than infidelity; however, remember that for every half of a couple who blames the other's affair for the marital breakdown, a nearly equal number of persons (who had the affair) will postulate vague relationship reasons (in their own minds the underlying instigation of that affair) and thereby remove the "blame" from themselves. A significant portion of divorcing spouses also are hoodwinked by the fact that they see only the persistent "relationship" problems, the cause of which more readily would be understood if that spouse were AWARE that the other was in fact secretly involved with another person. Every family lawyer who has ever hired a private investigator on behalf of a client prepares her for this possibility. There's also a truism that in my own observations does tend to hold true more often than not, and that is "Men don't leave unless they have 'someplace' to go." -- liz]

-- Here are a lot of quotes and opinions collected by father's rights-leaning and semi-reactionary "divorce reform" sympathizer, ABA custody committee lawyer John Crouch:

-- " family members interviewed who have experienced divorce identified causes for marital failure often related to the family business. These included continuing financial stresses, the time constraints (particularly dairy operations) that continuously compete for family time, unresolved business arrangements (non-transfer of farm business assets or no business equity development), or lifestyle or career expectations that cannot be met within the farm business setting..."

-- "Ginny Shull did her Honors Research with Dr. Seeborg on Division of Labor and the Economic Determinants of Divorce... ABSTRACT: The theme of the 1992 National Republican Convention rang out with such phrases as the "traditional family" and "family values;" many conservatives asserted that a return to these molds of the established institutions of marriage and family would be the solution to the societal ills America now faces. Using Gary S. Becker's neo-classical theory on the family, this study researches the economic causes of divorce and hypothesizes that, from an eocnomic standpoint, the "traditional family" is more likely to remain intact than a household with a non-traditional family structure. A sample of married couples were drawn from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), and logistic regressions and descrptive statistics were utilized to measure and explore the economic variables affecting the dissolution of marriages in terms of Becker's theory. Although support was not found for Becker's theory, several economic determinants of divorce were revealed."

-- Here are some opinions really highlighting the simplistic intellect of some marital therapists: "Therapists may disagree on how to treat ailing marriages, but they are in accord over the common causes of divorce - money, sex, time management, child-rearing practices and the role of extended family. Extreme cases involve physical violence, infidelity and drug and alcohol abuse."

-- see Davis, B., & Aron, A. (1988). Perceived causes of divorce and postdivorce adjustment among recently divorced midlife women. Journal of Divorce, 12, 41-55.

-- "Lack of social success increases conflicts within the family and frequently leads to its destruction. In 1990, there were an average 9.7 marriages and 3.4 divorces for every 1000 members of the population. In 1996, there were 6.2 marriages and 4.2 divorces for every 1000 members of the population. Similar trends can be seen in many countries around the world. But the very fact that in 1996 there were 63,677 marriages and 43,089 divorces in the republic does not allow us to comfort ourselves with these kind of analogies. Moral and psychological problems are the most common causes of divorce. They include the loss of sparkle in the relationship; psychological incompatibility; drunkenness or alcoholism of one of the couple (usually the husband) and cruelty towards the other members of the family which is associated with them; infidelity; and an unequal distribution of household duties. Women who do not want to put up with their situation are usually the ones to initiate divorce proceedings. The consequences of divorce are, however, more problematic for women than for men. This is because of the deeper psychological trauma they suffer and also because, as a rule, the children from an annulled marriage stay with their mother and she is forced to take responsibility for the whole family..."

-- "Poll: The top three [perceived] main causes of divorce in Britain were unfaithfulness (73%), violence (61%) and lack of respect for each other (54%)."

-- "He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes of divorce; in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given, as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women - the law, in all cases, going upon the false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands..." THE DECLARATION OF SENTIMENTS

Marriage is one of the chief causes of divorce. (unknown.)



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