Seemingly every week, we hear the depressing news of another marital relationship on the rocks. Whether it involves family, friends or just celebrity gossip (this week, News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch and his wife Wendi Deng are splitting), divorce has become an all-too-familiar part of modern American life. And although the divorce rate has dropped each decade in the past 40 years, roughly one-third of first marriages are still destined for failure (depending upon how the rate is calculated).
So what’s causing all of these divorces? I have spent my entire career in family law, and have witnessed countless ruined marriages up close and personal. Over time, I’ve been able to gain some perspective on the most common reasons for divorce. As I see it, there are four major causes, with the first one being far more important than the other three:
- Not properly “vetting” your potential spouse. I hear so often that someone’s spouse “changed” after they got married or after a certain amount of time together. This can undoubtedly be true sometimes (see cause #2 below), but it’s more likely that the “changed” person has always been the same, and their spouse just didn’t know it. They did not take the time to make a well-informed decision about the person with whom they intended to spend the rest of their life. Perhaps it was due to physical attraction, or an unplanned pregnancy, or a vulnerable time in their life. Or perhaps some people can hide themselves away for a period of time before their true colors inevitably show. Whatever the reason, I find this to be the single most important mistake that people make, and it’s made even before saying “I do.”
- Drifting apart and leading different lives. Sometimes, two people who are well-matched can nevertheless drift apart and begin to lead separate lives. Perhaps they have different groups of friends or different ways of unwinding. Perhaps one enjoys drinking and socializing, and the other prefers to stay in. Maybe their work responsibilities change, leading to different lifestyles and priorities. Or they no longer participate in activities that they enjoyed together, which might have brought them together in the first place. They no longer play co-ed softball together, or tailgate for Redskins games, or have Friday movie nights, and the threads woven into the relationship’s tapestry unravel and fray, one by one. For a relationship to succeed over the long haul, I think that couples must have many of these intersecting points on their lives’ journeys, and must seek out ways to maintain these evolving common interests.
- Adultery. This one is obvious and remains a leading cause of divorce today. Sometimes the cheating party seeks the divorce (more common in my experience), but sometimes the non-offending party takes the lead instead. Men and women alike can be cheaters, and from my experience and contrary to common wisdom, men are only slightly more frequent offenders. Adultery also ties into cause #1 above. If you don’t take the time to learn the true character of your spouse, they can surprise you with their behavior. For example, a tearful client of mine once expressed complete and utter shock that her husband was having an affair with a coworker. When I dug deeper, I discovered that her relationship with her husband had also begun at work, when he was married to his first wife. Nobody deserves to be treated poorly, but I’ve learned that people (sometimes even seemingly innocent parties) are often the victims of their own poor decision-making.
- Money. This remains the root of many marital problems, although not as much as it was a generation ago. In the past, a husband and wife were more likely to keep all of their funds in joint accounts, in part because having only one wage-earner was much more common. Over time, couples have become more likely to maintain separate bank accounts for discretionary expenditures, while still maintaining joint accounts for household expenses and the like. In two-income households with separate “fun money” accounts, the impact of clashes between a penny-pincher and a spendthrift can be minimized. Of course, this also relates to cause #1 above, because if you’re careful with your money, you should have found out whether your spouse had a similar attitude before marriage. However, note that a bad economy and money trouble can often have the opposite effect, causing a couple to stay together. One home with two salaries is far cheaper to maintain that two homes with two salaries, not to mention the prospect of unloading a house with negative equity or paying prolonged child support or alimony.