Have you ever decided to stay in your marriage only to be unpleasantly surprised by information your spouse revealed out of the blue? How about this: Had one foot out the door just as your spouse did something heroic, inspiring newfound respect and connection? Ever expressed thousands of complaints to your spouse “in your head,” yet never said one aloud?
You are certainly not alone. At any time, about one in four married Americans is thinking about divorce. And while this fact may be discouraging to read, learning that thoughts about your marital status are fairly normal could bring hope. Last week, drawing on a qualitative study of how people think about divorce, we shared four major factors that shape spouses’ divorce decisions. Here, we explain more “dimensions” of the complicated decision-making process.
Qualitative Results: “What Are They Thinking?”
People think in ways that aren’t necessarily linear, and certainly not neat or tidy. When the topics are marriage and divorce, their thoughts can get especially complex. Those we interviewed—30 married Americans, ages 25 to 50, who had recently considered divorce—revealed a wide variety of thought processes. Perhaps you’ll recognize some of your own while reading.
Time. Most participants think about their marriage and the possibility of divorce by reflecting on the past, present, and future of their relationship. Appraisal-based language about what time means or how time is conceptualized was woven throughout every interview. Respondents often explored time-based questions such as, “Where am I in life? How much time have I already spent in this relationship? Should I wait (for major life events such as when the children leave) before making a decision to end this marriage?” They weighed these questions against the energy and resources they already had invested into their marriages, and against how much longer they could tolerate their present situations.
“Are we gonna do enough damage to the relationship, in this really stressful period, that when financial burdens are less and our daughter is an adult, will we have done so much damage that it’s not worth trying to fix?” –Mike, married 22 years
Additionally, participants talked about appropriate “timing” to raise topics about their marriage and about when they should simply wait, knowing full well they were experiencing familiar cycles that would end in a status-quo state once again. Descriptions of temporary vs. permanent issues in family life also arose. There was some expectation that “with time comes change” in aspects of marriage: children in the home, financial burdens, work responsibilities, even geographic location. In other words, how participants saw their marriage depended on the context within which they were currently living.
Space. “The social and physical environment and context can profoundly impact how people make decisions regarding the future of their marriage and cannot be ignored” (Allen & Hawkins, in press). Respondents frequently spoke about how their geographical or metaphorical “space”—their home, job, personal freedom, etc.—affected their marital status appraisal. Spatial elements are multitudinous, and unique to every marriage. Memories about certain places and their meanings, songs and their lyrics, realms of friends or family, or being together (or not) during holidays or special occasions were laced throughout all 30 conversations. How people make sense of their emotional, social, and geographical spaces plays heavily into how they consider divorce or reconciliation decision-making.
“But there was one song that really resonated with me…it’s called ‘I’m just a ghost in this house.’ I have definitely felt that way many, many times.” –Cody, married 12 years.
Internal Processes. A good deal of thinking about divorce is done internally. Many spouses do not share any of their thoughts with others, not even their spouse. Contemplating one’s situation leads to repeatedly running through an endless variety of possible future scenarios compared to one’s current lived experience. The voices in our participants’ heads were quite often active, and they regularly carried on imagined conversations with their spouses.
“For myself, it’s actually like, ‘Where would I be, where would I want to have this conversation?’ And then there’s the, ‘How will he react? How can I say it in a way that he doesn’t internalize it or make him think it’s his fault?’” –Amanda, married 10 years
External Processes. While some participants hadn’t spoken to anyone about their thoughts of divorce, many had shared aspects of their decision-making with others in their life. This sharing was occasionally accompanied by anxiety about how their confidants might view them and their situation. Further, our interviewees often compared the state of their marriage to significant reference points such as their parents’ or friends’ marriages. Phrases such as “if my family knew what my marriage was like…” or “mom’s marriage was much worse than mine and she hung in there” were common. Some felt personally supported by sharing their thoughts with friends, family, or counseling professionals, and others felt less so.
“But this one couple that knew us a little bit more than most others was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And we would let them know some of the troubles we were going through. They even sat with us for several weeks and we did a marriage course together. [They said] ‘Oh, you know it’s just like one of those little ripple things.’ They didn’t quite know the depth of our problems, but they did put out a hand that way.” –Sherrie, married five years
Emotional and Rational Dimensions. People thinking about the status of their relationship continually move in and out of narratives based on reason and emotion. Interestingly, some of our participants spoke very emotionally about how they tried to approach decision-making in a logical and rational way. Others spoke about their feelings, but laced the discussion with methodical and rational descriptions of their thought processes. Some participants were very overt about their logic, mentioning “lists” of reasons to stay or to leave. Others were open about experiencing a variety of feelings about their marriage on any given day, mentioning very little “factual” information.
Because most all our participants’ descriptions included both emotional and rational elements, we believe it’s important to investigate further how people make sense of their marriage using both their brain and their heart.
“There are moments when you think you may be thinking clearly, when you’re thinking about leaving, [but] then as time goes by, you kind of reassess that thought…and you may not have been thinking too clearly; you may have been thinking on an emotional level.” –Alonzo, married four years
Balancing. Our participants repeatedly tried to find balance between the negative and positive aspects of married life. People asked themselves how happy they are, or how much love they experience in their marriage and whether there’s enough to stay married. Many identified tipping points that would help them know when it was time to make a decision to divorce, but rather than being concrete events, these points were hard to grasp and often dependent on other, even harder to grasp states of being that seemed to be continually shifting.
“Is it harder to stay or is it harder to go?…Harder to stay in that we have been married for over 20 years so we have a history of good—but we also have a history of bad. Bad being hurt feelings, misunderstandings, emotional neglect, that kind of thing, and I feel like that puts us in a situation where everything that happens in our marriage is viewed through that history of all of our past hurts…but we seem to forget about the good.” –Annaleise, married 10 years
Personal Values and Identity. Getting married tells the world something about who you are and to some degree, what you stand for. You make a commitment, you decide to give yourself to another person, and you promise to act in certain ways the rest of your life…till the day you die. Deciding to divorce offers the individual the ultimate exercise in values clarification: “I knew what I stood for when I got married, but times have changed. Am I still the same person? How was I to know, when I made that commitment, that life would turn out like this?”
The answers to these questions have a dramatic bearing on how participants’ self-perception and may be related to their concerns about how others see them as well. Our participants seemed to be saying that the act of getting a divorce or reconciling one’s marriage speaks volumes about who they are as human beings.
“…and he said to me, ‘It was God speaking to me, I know it was,’ and I said, ‘Okay well, what does that mean to you?’ because I just wanted to know what that meant to him. And he said, ‘It’s just like…the day of our wedding I took my vows to love you through sickness and health, till death do us part. This is our sickness and this is our health, you know, us financially is our sickness and health, your car wreck is your sickness and health, maybe even your cheating is part of your sickness and health…”–Jennifer, married 16 years
Appraisal Process. Although many of our respondents devoted a great deal of time and energy to thinking about their marriage, they frequently moved out of a “thinking state” back into the status quo. However, a few participants were moving more toward leaving or leaning out of their marriage, a process we call “entropy.” And a few were actively taking steps to improve their marriage, pursuing “growth.”
In summary, deciding whether to get a divorce means navigating contradictory forces and impulses without much sense of clarity or confidence. The commitment of many spouses to “stick things out” prolongs the decision-making process indefinitely. Although this makes things difficult, it also suggests that most people are not quick to jump to divorce. Often, even as they consider ending their marriage, they remain hopeful that something might change.
“Getting a divorce is like is like giving up on something worth fighting for, or not finishing a painting or a work of art. Don’t put the book down, don’t throw the artwork away.” –Christopher, married 19 years