If you had to hazard a guess about the top reasons people divorce, what
would you say? Odds are that you’d be right on the money, according a study
from Paul R. Amato and Denise Previti of the University of Pennsylvania. The
pair of researchers collected data from 208 people via a national panel about
why they thought their marriages ended in divorce, which resulted in probably
the least surprising top 10 list of all time. The study isn’t new — the data
was gathered between 1980 and 1997 and published in 2003 — but it’s making the
rounds again, thanks to New York Magazine’s
The Cut; I also think it’s worth revisiting in light of a few other
things, like the fact that divorce is actually trending downward these days,
rather that upwards. Let's take a look, shall we?
As Bustle’s Emma Cueto wrote last week, the New York Times reported that divorce peaked in the ‘70s and ‘80s and has been on the decline ever since then. It also turns out that the old “50 percent of marriages end in divorce” statistic is wrong, and has been wrong for a while now. But divorce hasn’t gone away entirely, so what might the causes be? Bear in mind the study’s 1980-to-2003 time frame, which means reasons may have shifted in the intervening years — but let’s look at it as a moment in time in and of itself. In the period between right after divorce hit its peak and roughly a decade or so before where we’re at now, here’s what people were divorcing over the most:
- Infidelity: 18.4 percent of responses, 21.6 percent of cases.
- Incompatibility: 16.4 percent of responses, 19.2 percent of cases.
- Drinking or Drug Use: Nine percent of responses, 10.6 percent of cases.
- Grew Apart: 8.2 percent of responses, 9.6 percent of cases.
- Personality Problems: 7.8 percent of responses, 9.1 percent of cases. For the curious, the study defines this reason as “Problems with personality or behavior that cause conflict in marriage”; the example given is “He was selfish and thought only of himself.”
- Lack of Communication: 7.4 percent of responses, 8.7 percent of cases.
- Physical or Mental Abuse: 4.9 percent of responses, 5.8 percent of cases.
- Loss of Love: 3.7 percent of responses, 4.3 percent of cases. By “loss of love,” the study means the couple simply fell out of love. It happens.
- Not Meeting Family Obligations: 2.9 percent of responses, 3.4 percent of cases. The study defines these as failing to contribute to the household in everything from breadwinning to housekeeping and from spending time with the family to helping with child care.
- Employment Problems: 2.9 percent of responses, 3.4 percent of cases.
Other reasons — those that didn’t crack the top 10 — include being unhappy in the marriage, financial issues, or physical or mental illness. I’m assuming, by the way, that some cases cited more than one reason; although all the “percent of responses” figures add up to 100, the “percent of cases” ones add up to 117.3. In any event, though, they’re pretty much what you’d expect: People change, people aren’t always who you think they are, and sometimes we make bad choices. What can I say? It happens. Humans aren't infallible.
This study is also kind of interesting when up against a piece Sue Johnson wrote for Quartz back in February of 2014. Titled “The One Surprising Thing That Can Make Every Marriage Work: Logic,” the piece makes a case for “the ability to respond emotionally and offer support when it’s needed” as being the key to a relationship’s success. I’ll be honest: I don’t find the argument particularly convincing. Yes, the ability to respond emotionally to and to offer support for your partner is a necessary part of every good relationship — but I don’t think we can boil down what makes all relationships work to just one element. Relationships are complicated because people are complicated, and to overgeneralize is to do everyone a disservice.
It gets even problematic when you factor in the divorce study. What I take away from them both in conjunction with each other is that just because someone can respond emotionally and offer support to someone else doesn’t necessarily meant they’re the ideal partner: You can have that quality, but it doesn’t mean, for example, that you’re capable of staying faithful. You can have it, but you can also have an unaddressed substance abuse problem that might kill the relationship. You can have it and ultimately just be incompatible or have different life goals than the other person.
That’s my two cents about it, at least. Read the whole study online here.