Causes and Associated Features of Divorce as Seen by Recent Research

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services

Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, Vol. 42(3/4) 2005, p153-171

Most research concerning divorce and separation comes from the United States. Between the mideighties and 2002,46 research articles appeared mostly dealing with the causes of separation and divorce and only very few with the repercussions and treatment approaches. Other countries providing research include the UK (6), Holland (3), China (2), Australia (2). The remainder present one piece of research from Saudi Arabia, Finland, Sweden, Israel, Japan, Ireland, and Switzerland. One piece of research concerned itself with international comparisons of separation and divorce.

Goldstein (1999) noted that divorce rates show a levelling off mainly due to the f act that there is now considerable cohabitation, that is, living together without marriage. One piece of research made an effort to examine the power of an oral history interview in predicting stable marital relationships versus divorce. Carrers et al. (2000) was able to predict with 84.4% accuracy, those marriages that were likely to remain intact rather than those that did not. The oral history date predicted 81% and ^ 87.4% accuracy of these couples separating or remaining together. The 87.4% prediction was whether divorce occurred within the first five years while the 81 % predicted accuracy over a longer period.

Daly and Wilson (2000) considered why some marriages appeared to last. He drew Information from the Darwinian theory which argued that the human mammal selected the marital alliance as the best adaptation for ensuring its survival through sexual reproduction. With the decline in religious influences considerable family changes have occurred in the United States during the past four decades (Brooks, 2002). This had led to an increasing proportion of singleparent families. Public concern with family decline increased steadily after 1980. A study by Pinsof (2002) noted that during the last half of the twentieth century, for the first time in history, divorce replaced death as the end point of the majority of marriages.
Most research, as indicated, is based on the causes of divorce. Relatively little is concerned with the consequences of divorce and even less in seeking to find remedies or prevention for separation and divorce. These three areas of researched causes will now be explored intensively.

Causes of divorce

It should be remembered that divorce does not occur for a single reason and that frequently there are a number of factors involved as to why divorce and separations occur. A summary of these now follows:

  1. Women’s independence.
  2. Too early marriage and arranged marriages.
  3. Economic factors.
  4. Poor intellectual and educational and social skills.
  5. Liberal divorce laws.
  6. Sexual factors leading to incompatibility.
  7. Role conflicts.
  8. Alcoholism and substance abuse or risk taking behavior.
  9. Differences between the partners leading to acrimony.
  10. Religious factors.
  11. Attitudes to divorce.
  12. Various other factors.

Women’s Independence

Over the years women have gained in independence due to their of ten developing a career in the work setting. Ermisch (1986) felt that marital disillusion often occurred when women had the experience of working and following their own career. This influenced women’s earning capacity and gave considerable risk to marital disillusion especially when there were other problems present as well. A Japanese study by Ogawa and Ermisch (1994) found that in Japan the divorce rate had more than doubled since the mid1960s. This was attributed to female paid employment which had increased rapidly in the past few decades. This was especially the case for women who took up fulltime employment. Hence it was found by Heath and Ciscel (1996) that many women remained in marriage merely because they had no alternative but to do so having no earning power, and opportunities to be economically independent from their spouses.

Ruggles (1997) found the rise of female employment in non-farm-type occupations was closely associated with growth of divorce and separation. Moreover, higher female labor-force participation among black women and lower economic opportunities for black men accounted for race differences and marital instability before 1940, and for more of such differences in subsequent years.

Many women who took up careers frequently lacked the career support from their spouses. This was noted by Dolan and Hoffman (l 998).
Divorce or separation between partners frequently affected their total earnings which is one of the reasons why many partners remained together, to prevent this from occurring (Ressler & Waters, 2000). It was also noted, however, that increases in female earnings significantly increased divorce rates, undoubtedly due to the fact that the woman in an unhappy marriage now found herself capable of sustaining herself and possibly her family on her own wages.

An interesting phenomenon over recent years is that women file for divorce more often now than men, despite deep attachments to their children who they know are being harmed by such divorces. Many women in retrospect report the fact that they are happier being single than when they were married (Brinig & Allen, 2000). Many women also file for divorce for the purpose of having sole custody of the children.
Sayer and Bianchi (2000) explored whether a wife’s economic independence destabilized marriage and heightened the risk of divorce. There was an initial positive association between a wife’s percentage contribution to the family income and divorce, but the relation was reduced to non-significance as soon as variables measuring gender ideology were introduced into the model. The analysis indicated that measures of marital commitment and satisfaction were better predictors of marital disillusion than measures of economic independence. The studies of the influence of women’ s work on the risk of divorce were carried out by Poortman and Kalmijn, (2002) in a Dutch study. Of particular importance were the factors that led to divorce due to the intensity of the wife’s work, the status of the wife’s work and the potential success she achieved on the labour market in comparison with her husband. The result showed that working women had a 22% higher risk of divorce than women who did not work.

Too Early Marriage and Arranged Marriages

Only one study concerned itself with too early marriage. This was a Chinese study by Zeng et al. (1992). This study demonstrated that the level of divorce in China was extremely low, in comparison with other developed and developing countries. Similar findings from other studies indicated that the risk of divorce for women who married before the age of 18 was higher than those married after 20. Arranged marriages had a risk of divorce which was about 2.5 times as high as the non-arranged marriage. It was also noted that divorces were higher in urban than rural areas. Other things being equal, women with more children had a lower risk of divorce. Son-preference exerted an effect on marriage dissolution. Women with no son had significantly higher risk of divorce than those with at least one son.

Economic and Financial Factors

A study by Whittington and Alm (1997) showed mat women and men respond to tax incentives in their divorce decisions. It must be said that the couples involved in this rather mercenary approach to divorce were a small proportion of those seeking divorce. Most couples tended to find themselves in financial difficulties from one side or the other, or in some cases, both sides as a result of separation and divorce. Frequently it results in unemployment and the reliance on state benefits in Great Britain. In most cases there is an association between emotional factors and subsequent partnership breakups (Kiernan & Mueller, 1998). The authors summarized that people who embarked on partnerships at an early age, cohabitants, those who had experienced parental divorce, and those who were economically, somatically and emotionally vulnerable had higher risks of divorce.
An international study of regional differences in divorce rates was carried out by Lester (1999). The author explored social correlates of regional divorce rates for seven nations: Finland, France, Hungary, Japan, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the USA, finding little consistency. The most consistent social correlates were found to be unemployment and, to a lesser extent, population size, homicide rates, percentage of elderly people, birth rates, death rates, and crime rates.

A study of young Americans who wished to divorce showed that economic factors played an important role in many who sought separations and divorces (Burgess et al., 1997). Similar results were obtained by Waters and Ressler (1999). A final study by Finnas (2000) showed that in Finland an increasing level of income of the husband also decreased the divorce risk, whereas the trend was the opposite one in respect to the wife’s income. It was also found that tenants in this study ran a 50% higher risk of divorce than home owners.

Poor Intellectual, Educational, and Social Skills Preventing Separation Due to Better Selection of Spouse

Many investigators found that divorce risks decreased as you moved from groups with little education or social capital to groups with more (Hoem, 1997). This negative educational gradient fits with the notion that people with more education are better at selecting spouses and better at making a marriage work. Similarly, Dronkers (2002) in a Dutch study found a relationship between intelligence and divorce risk during the early 1990s for two different Dutch longitudinal cohorts, for which intelligence measures during their childhood were available. A positive relation between intelligence and divorce risk was found for 50yearolds born around 1940: Divorced respondents had a lower average intelligence than respondents who stayed together. A negative relation between intelligence and divorce risk was found also for 30yearolds born around 1958: Divorced respondents had a lower average intelligence than respondents who stayed together.

Liberal Divorce Laws or the Ease of Obtaining Divorces

Several studies have shown that the ease of gaining a divorce through liberal laws has undoubtedly increased the likelihood of divorce. This has been shown to be the case in postwar growth of divorces in Great Britain (Smith, 1997). The rising incidence of divorce was explained chiefly also by the growth in the real earnings of women, which had increased post-divorce welfare by providing a measure of financial independence. This coincides with section l, the greater power of women in their role in society.

Similar results were obtained in the United States as noted by Friedberg (1998). Most states in America switched from requiring mutual consent to allowing unilateral or no-fault divorce between 1970 and 1985. Since then the national divorce rate more than doubled after 1965. A later study by Smith (1998) noted that while in England and Wales the emphasis was initially on fault divorce decrees, no-fault divorce decrees dominated in Scotland. The paper proposed an explanation for this remarkable contrast based on cost incentives generated by procedural and legal interventions with the respective legal systems. The introduction of the Simplified Procedure in Scotland and the reduction in the time bar to divorce in England and Wales were seen as causal factors for a greater number of divorces occurring. The introduction of liberal no-fault divorce laws, therefore, had a significant effect on the divorce rate in England and Wales (Binner & Dnes, 2001).

Sexual Factors Leading to Incompatibility

Despite the great emphasis on sexual problems between a couple, only two studies dealt directly with this. Mazur and Booth (1998) noted that in men high levels of endogenous testosterone seemed to encourage sexual behavior and tended to come into conflict with a harmonious marriage. There appeared therefore to be a relationship between testosterone secretion in men and this leading to divorce. Allen and Brinig (1998) examined differences in sex drive between husbands and wives and how this affected bargaining strengths during marriage, particularly at times when divorce occurred. The basic argument folio wed from the tact that sex drives varied over an individual’s life cycle and were frequently different for men and women. The spouse having the lower sex drive at any time in the marriage had the controlling right over whether or not sexual intercourse occurred, with a consequent increase in bargaining power. Such powers influenced the marriages and the likelihood of adultery and divorce.

Role Conflicts

Despite the fact that role conflicts predominating frequently led to marital disharmony only two studies were published in this area. Abdel Hameed Al Khateeb (1998) in a study of Saudi Arabian families, including 95 Saudi working women, suggested that Saudi families had changed to some degree. Marital aspects such as housing and brideprice had changed faster than cultural ones. One important change, however, that had taken place in a Saudi family, was the dynamic of marital relationships. Whereas originally this relationship was characterized by the exaggerated respect wives were expected to show their husbands in their daily interactions, now mutual respect and understanding were increasingly evident in the marital relationship. Women’s attitudes to equality between the sexes tended to be more progressive than those of men and different expectations had caused role conflict in the family and an increase in the divorce rate. Although men had lost some of their social and religious authority in the family, their economic and genera! authority remained intact. The Saudi family was a male dominated institution with important decisions being made by men. Cultural norms, civil roles, and judicial legislations supported men’s authority in the family and society. An American study also found that incongruencies between spouses and gender beliefs, expectations, and behaviors affected marital stability through negative marital interactions, causing identity disruption, and resulted in distancing, marital instability, and in some cases divorce (Pasley et al., 2001).

Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Factors Causing Risks

Only two recent studies concerned themselves with the role of alcohol in producing problems in marriage. Alcohol consumption and divorce rates in the United States were studied by Caces et al. (1999). The results provided support for both the effects of heavy drinking on divorce rates and the effects of divorce on expenditures for alcoholic beverages. The association between health related behaviors and the risk of divorce in the United States was noted by Fu and Goldman (2000). The findings indicated that physical characteristics associated with poor health, namely obesity and short stature, were not significantly related to risks of marital dissolution for either men or women. On the other hand, risk taking behavior such as smoking and drug use was strongly related to higher risks of divorce for both sexes. Overall, results emphasized the need to accommodate health related variables in the dominant economic and social psychological theories of marital dissolution.

Various Differences Between Partners in the Relationship as a Cause of Divorce

Janssen et al. (2000) asked the question: “Do marriages in which partners do not resemble each other with respect to age, educational level, occupational status, religion, ethnic background, and social origin have larger probabilities of divorce than marriage in which partners have similar characteristics?” Event history models showed that all forms of heterogamy (being different) led to higher divorce rates and that heterogamy with regard to age, educational attainment, and religion had the largest impact. Both the lack of similarity in taste and preference, and lack of social support affected the risk of divorce, with the effect of the former twice as strong as the effect of the latter. The interpretation of the effects of heterogamy, i.e., being different, on divorce was partial; the effects of educational and religious heterogamy were explained to a larger extent. Other factors important in relationships and frequently neglected were positive time spent by the spouses with one another. This was a significant predictor for women, but less so for men, as to whether the marriage actually worked. For men, unsociable marriages were significant as leading to problems between the parties. This was not, however, found to be the case for women (Terling-Watt, 2001).

Religious Factors

A Swiss study by Charton and Wanner (2001) indicated that Switzerland had more than 25% of marital unions end in divorce. This high prevalence of divorce was thought to be linked to the fact that marriage was a forced ritual for many Swiss partners. Factors modifying the probability of divorce were discussed in the paper on the basis of the 1994/95 Family & Fertility Survey data. Survival models allowed for measuring factors influencing the risk of divorce. Among individual factors, the absence of the practice of religion and a former divorce of parents seemed to have a positive effect on the risk of divorce. Other factors included age of the spouses and ha ving had a premarital union. The presence of children in the union also had an impact in preventing separation and divorce. It seemed that the meaning of divorce was increasingly linked to the significance and positive attitudes attributed to marriage.

An interesting study by Broyles (2002) examined the religiosity and attitudes towards divorce. Researchers had shown that religion played a role in predicting whether there was a greater likelihood of obtaining a divorce when marital problems arose. Although the research in this area was quite intensive, little research existed about how religiosity affected one’s attitudes towards divorce. The results indicated that there was in tact a significant negative correlation between religiosity and attitudes towards divorce, which suggested that religion does play a role in one’s consideration as to whether or not to seek to obtain a divorce.

Attitudes to Divorce

A study by Kim and Kim (2002) found that a once-divorced person may hesitate to divorce again as is the case in Asian countries, due to the fear of being labeled as pathological or abnormal. This contradicted the view that multiple divorces were likely to occur in certain individuals.
In Ireland divorce was banned under the Irish Constitution. Despite there being thousands of separated people in Ireland in the early 1980s, the proposal to introduce divorce was vociferously opposed in referenda in 1986 and 1995. The campaign also claimed that divorce would open the floodgates to marriage breakdown. The availability of divorce in Ireland since 1997 had not, however, borne out these dire predictions (Burley & Regan, 2002).

Other Factors

One study concerned itself with the death of a child leading to divorce (Schwab, 1998). The death of a child put a tremendous strain on the marital relationship and was fairly common among bereaved parents. It appeared, however, that the majority of marital relationships survived the strain brought about by a child’s death and were often even strengthened in the long run. The quality of the marital relationship prior to the child’s death, cause of death, and circumstances surrounding the death produced differential outcomes for the marital relationship.

Attitudes to marriage and divorce are vital in determining whether a divorce or separation is likely to occur as noted by Amato and Rogers (1999). When the marital quality deteriorates, those with attitudes favoring divorce are more likely to take that step, as opposed to those who hold fast to their marriage vows.

A British study by Kiernan and Cherlin (1999) indicated that a longitudinal survey of a British cohort born in 1958 found that by the age of 33 off spring of parents who were divorced were more likely to have dissolved their own first partnerships. This finding persisted after taking into account age at first partnership, and type of first partnership (marital, premarital, cohabitation union, and cohabiting union). Also important were indicators of class background, childhood and adolescent school achievement and early behavior problems. Some of these factors were associated with partnership dissolution in their own right, but the association between parental divorce and second generation partnership dissolution was largely independent of them.

The costs of divorce were also considered a factor as to whether this occurred (Bougheas & Georgellis, 1999). The effect of war on divorce has also been noted by Anderson and Little (1999). Empirical tests showed that World War II significantly increased divorce rates, but rates did not significantly increase because of the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Barlow (1999) noted that the divorce rate among Christians was higher than that of the average population. This statistic was cause for concern and changes in church preparation for marriage occurred. Although instructions for pastoral premarital counseling existed, most churches did not follow the minimum guidelines. Churches needed a new proactive model for building good marriages rather than mending broken ones. The question is frequently asked whether marital instability occurred as a result of the individual’s parents having sought divorce in the past. Wolfinger (2000) tested the hypothesis that individuals and households in the USA who experienced many parental relationship transitions were more likely to reproduce these behaviors as adults by dissolving multiple marriages. The hypothesis was confirmed, and the findings were essentially unchanged when controlling for socioeconomic characteristics of both respondents and their families of origin.

The effect of children being born has also been considered as possible grounds for divorce as noted by Hoge (2002). The author showed how the transition to parenthood became a personal crisis for some fathers and mothers. It prompted them to run away to search for extramarital affairs, or lapse into addictions. This may well lead to preparation for parenthood education. Those who initiated divorces frequently married again. Sweeney (2002) examined the ways in which the decision to begin and to end relationships were interrelated. Results suggested that initiators tended to enter subsequent unions more quickly, although this differential diminished considerably three years after separation. There is also evidence that initiators of divorce or separation were in a stronger position for remarriage and the possibility of forming another relationship was good. Whether this relationship lasted, however, depended on what positive lesson had been learned from previous relationships.

Consequences of divorce

The consequences of divorce can be summed up into four main areas:

  1. The diminishing of the father’s role in the family.
  2. Poor impact on the children.
  3. Emotional problems for a number of persons involved.
  4. Reduced living Standard.

The Diminishing of the Father’s Role in the Family

A number of studies have indicated the father’s role is diminished considerably as a result of divorce. This was due to mothers usually receiving custody of children. This could lead to a parental alienation situation termed Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) (Lowenstein, 1998a, 1998b, 1999a, 1999b, 1999d,2001a,2001b;Gardner, 1992,1998,2001). Within two generations, the primary reason that American children were depri ved of a father shifted from a father’s death to a woman’s choice of a separation or divorce (Coney & Mackey, 1998). Prior to the 1960s, the major cause of becoming deprived of a father was death of a father through illness or accident. After the 1960s the children became deprived of a father primarily because of the mother’s decision to petition tbr a divorce or to become a single parent mother. This situation has been termed by many the “crisis in America: Father’s absence” (Ancona, 1998). Much blame of violence, gangs, rape, crime, and substance abuse has been attributed to the dissolution of the family which caused primarily the loss of paternal functions. In short, society was seen to be becoming imbued with being able to cope without fathers. Some women and others frequently ask: Why do we need fathers’? Certainly the consequences of fatherless families was seen to be the cause of a number of problems in many cases.

Poor Impact on Children

There have been a number of studies to indicate the harm that can be done to children and parents by divorces or separations which lead to dissolution of the family. Booth (1999) reviewed changes in divorce rates over the last century. Explanations for the changes were evaluated and future trends were projected. The implications of future trends, especially as they related to children, were examined. The author contended that the negative relationship between parental divorce and children’s wellbeing appeared long before the divorce took place. Also, children whose parents exhibited low conflict levels before divorce suffered more than those whose parents exhibited moderate to high conflict. These and other findings were explored so that those divorces that entailed high long and short-term risks for children could be identified, and dealt with.

Children’s adjustment in conflicted marriage and divorce was studied by Kelly (2000). Children of divorced parents as a group had more adjustment problems than did children of never-divorced parents. The view that divorce per se was the major cause of these symptoms had to be considered in the light of newer research documenting the negative effect of troubled marriages on children. Divorcing parents tended to describe their children as presenting more problems than parents who were not divorced, as noted by Burns and Dunlop (2000) in an Australian study. Data from a longitudinal sample of Australian men and women who were adolescents at the time of their parental divorce again presented considerable problems in such youngsters. Analysis of parent/child data described children of divorced parents as presenting more problems than children whose parents had not been divorced. Such children as adults were more wary about committing to relationships. These children whose parents described them (1316yearolds), were less socialized and more problematic and had more relationships as adults. Those who as teenagers described themselves less positively also reported themselves as having poorer relationships as adults.

Emotional Problemsfor a Number of Persons Involved in Divorce

A study of marrying a man with “baggage,” in the case of second wives, was examined by Knox and Zusman, (2001). Results showed that subjects who perceived that their stepchildren had caused problems in their marriage reported less happiness with their marriage, and more thoughts about divorce. There were also more regrets about remarrying their husbands. Sixty-six percent of these individuals reported feeling that their family continued to be affected by the first family of their husband and they felt resentful over the financial obligations of their husband due to the first family. Thirty-four percent of the subjects felt jealous of their husband’s first wife.

A study of the non-custodial parent and infants was carried out by Ram et al. (2002). Infants perceived divorce as a violation of the routine of everyday life. They were forced to cope with the collapse of their most familiar unit of care giving frame. This double parenting had been vital for proper growth and development and often caused developmental arrest or regression in the infant. Despite the dearth in empirical research data, there has been a growing recognition among professionals of the vital role played by the non-custodial parent in the post-divorce adjustment of the infant. Parental conflict and other parental factors, which influenced the non-custodial parent/infant relationship, were potentially hazardous to a smooth and proper development of the child. This was due to one parent, usually the custodial parent, trying to turn children against the other parent (usually the father). This then led to parental alienation (PA) or a Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) as already mentioned.

Educational problems were also more likely to occur in children according to Evans et al. (2001) and they were more likely to have suffered from the emotional problems resulting from divorce. Results from an Australian study showed that divorce in Australia costs seven-tenths of a year of education, mainly reducing secondary school completion. Furthermore, it was found that parental remarriage did not ameliorate the educational damage caused by parental separation or divorce.

Reduced Living Standards

As a result of divorce a number of investigators have found reduced living standards in the participants of the initial marriage (Wells, 2001). This appeared to affect both parties in the former marital relationship. Contrary to conventional thinking, the majority of partnered men in the USA lost economic status when their union dissolved (McManus and DiPrete, 2001). Although most men experienced a decline in living standards following union dissolution, men’s outcome was heterogeneous, and the minority of men who relied on their partners for less than 20% of pre-dissolution income, typically gained from separation and divorce. The data of the study showed clearly the great economic interdependence in partnerships. This trend appeared to increase the proportion of men who suffered a reduced Standard of living following a separation.

Remedy and treatment for individuals likely to suffer from separation or divorce

There are relatively few studies compared with the aetiology of separation and divorce in the area of remedies and treatment. Mclsaac and Fainn (1999) described their parental education program for high conflict families. Participants were 26 parents (couples) referred by the family court. The method emphasized an educational approach teaching conflict resolution skills. This course was rooted in the tenets of cognitive restructuring: if parents think differently about the other parent and their shared task of raising their children they will feel and act differently. The authors believed many of the difficulties between parents were caused by the negative perception of the other parent created during the spousal relationship.

They also believed the key to successful co-parenting was to reframe these perceptions emphasizing cooperation and joint problem solving. Furthermore, they believed as the cooperation and joint problem solving improved, this improvement was likely to be positive and have a reinforcing effect. Finally, the authors believed parents needed to learn to separate conflict in the spousal role from conflict in the parenting role. A follow-up review of these parents found that 13 of these highly conflicted parents used the concepts constructively. The other 13 parents appeared to need more help, indicated by their return to mediation. Mediation was also considered the way forward by Lowenstein (1999e).

Davila and Bradbury (2001) hypothesized that attachment insecurity would be associated with remaining in an unhappy marriage. One hundred and seventy-two newly married couples participated in a four year longitudinal study with multiple assessment points. Hierarchical linear models revealed that compared with spouses in happy marriages and divorced spouses, spouses who were in stable but unhappy marriages showed the highest level of insecurity initially and over time. Spouses in stable, unhappy marriages also had lower levels of marital satisfaction than divorced spouses and showed relatively high levels of depressive symptoms initially and over time.

Results suggested that spouses at risk of having unhappy marriages could be identified early and would benefit from interventions that increase the security of spouses’ attachment to each other. Finally, Walker and McCarthy (2001) emphasized the role of marriage counseling in England and Wales as a way of preventing divorce and separation. In recent times Lowenstein (2000, 2002) found mediation processes of great value in preventing divorce, or in dealing with parents after divorce to accept the importance of their continuing positive parenting role. It was vital to involve both parties in the relationship to promote the capacity for sharing parenting despite marital breakup.