Divorce Q&A

Why Do Marriages Break Down?

In a DivorceMagazine.com poll, 29% of respondents said that infidelity had caused their divorce; 22% blamed the marital split on communication problems; 15% said that the problem was basic incompatibility; and 14% cited emotional or physical abuse. Other reasons included drug addiction, financial woes, and one spouse being a work-aholic. "A variety of factors can lead to breakdowns," says John Gray, Ph.D., the author of the "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus" series of books. "External pressures such as job loss, health problems, family issues, and internal problems such as infidelity and changing values can contribute."

Certain behaviors or changes (such as repeated infidelity or abuse) lead directly to irreparable marital breakdown.  But there are also temporary problems which can be worked through. "Sometimes couples simply grow apart, in different directions, and they're not conscious of it," says Otto Collins, a relationship coach in Chillicothe, Ohio and co-author of "Should You Stay or Should You Go?" "Everyone grows all the time, in different ways. You and your partner can become different people, but there's a problem if you're not aware of where each other is." It's only natural that individual personalities evolve and mature during the course of each person's life, and successful long-term relationships should be able to adapt to such changes.

This separate evolution can cause couples to put other priorities in their lives ahead of their marriages. For example, this happens when one or both spouses get deeply involved in their careers, with their children's lives, or with separate social crowds and interests. It's not that they intended to neglect the marital relationship in the first place; maybe they just started to take it for granted. "They put the relationship on the back burner," says Susie Collins. "People quit talking about what's important to them and lose track of who they really are. Then they wake up and ask, 'Who am I married to?'"

Lori H. Gordon, Ph.D., founder of the PAIRS relationship-skills programs, suggests that our notions of what constitutes a successful marriage have changed in the last several decades. "In the past, you had a good marriage if your husband brought home the paychecks and didn't hit or abuse you. But that's no longer the standard," she says. "Today, men and women look for love, pleasure, and intimacy and have a desire for connection and bonding. If they can't find and nurture that bond, it leads them to decide they might as well leave the marriage."

Can You Rescue Your Relationship?

According to Otto Collins, one factor is your willingness to work it out. "Ask yourself: 'Do I want the marriage to be saved?'" "Some people aren't committed to creating the relationships they want. But if they want to, they can." And Susie Collins adds that both spouses should be willing to work at it. "It takes both people saying, 'Yes, I'm committed,'" she says. "If one person isn't in there, the process might drag on for years."

If the marriage is salvageable, both of you must be willing to do things differently-as opposed to carrying on the same mistakes that have kept the marriage in stagnation or trouble. "It depends on your openness to learning and change, and on your willingness to talk about what's causing your unhappiness," says Dr. Gordon. "Attitude is very important. If you both say, 'It's over'-if you're that closed toward trying to change things, I wouldn't give your marriage much hope for survival."

Making Marriage Work

You might be able to save your marriage if:

  • At least one of you is willing to seek help in some way: marriage counseling, relationship workshops, books on how to re-ignite passion.
  • You both recognize that disagreements are a normal part of any marriage.
  • You're open to learning how to communicate openly and honestly—without accusing or blaming each other, or "hitting below the belt."
  • You're willing to accept responsibility and apologize for the damage you've done to your spouse and to your marriage.
  • You're willing and able to devote time and effort to improving your relationship.
  • You both believe the marriage is worth trying to save.

Divorce might be the best choice for you if:

  • There's a pattern of abuse, drug addiction, or repeated infidelity.
  • Neither of you is willing to change or adapt to present circumstances.
  • Neither of you is able to forgive past wrongs or make amends.
  • One of you is committed to seeing yourself as 100% innocent and your spouse as 100% guilty regarding the problems in your relationship.
  • One of you has declared a new sexual orientation.
  • Either of you believes the marriage isn't worth trying to save.

Where to Get Help

If your marriage is having problems and you're interested in keeping it alive, you should seek the help of an individual marriage counselor, based on a referral from a friend or professional. We will be happy to make recommendations of good counselors.

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