Not long ago I was talking
to a friend who asked if I could help in some way with a difficult situation
that had arisen in her family. Her daughter and son-in-law of several years were
contemplating a divorce. They had two children. She said the young couple wasn’t
sure at the time, however, if they should divorce or stay together. They were
looking at both options and were, therefore, at the crossroads of marriage. I
told my friend I would send her some materials and references that might assist
her daughter and son-in-law with this critical decision. Since that time, I have
had numerous similar requests from married couples, their friends or family
members, as well as from several young adults who were seriously contemplating
marriage even as their parents were considering divorce.
The decision to
divorce or remain together to work things out is one of the most important
decisions you will ever make. It is crucial for those considering divorce to
anticipate what lies ahead in order to make informed decisions. Too often the
fallout from divorce is far more devastating than many people realize when
contemplating the move.1
large number of married couples in the United Sates apparently approach the
crossroads. Approximately 40-50 percent of couples in first marriages arrive at
this point and eventually choose the path of divorce. The divorce rate for
couples in second marriages is between 50-60 percent. Many other couples
apparently reach the crossroads but decide, for various reasons, to stay
married. A Gallup Poll conducted in the United States found that 40 percent of
married individuals had considered leaving their partners, and 20 percent said
they were dissatisfied with their marriage about half the time.2 Stated another
way, nearly half the couples in the United States currently divorce, and another
20 percent have seriously considered it.
Many newlyweds reach the crossroads
of marriage during the first or second year of marriage: Even newlyweds face
serious problems during the first year of marriage. A study of several hundred
newlywed couples found that 63 percent had serious problems related to their
finances, 51 percent had serious doubts about their marriage lasting, 49 percent
had significant marital problems, 45 percent were not satisfied with their
sexual relationship, 41 percent found marriage harder than they had expected,
and 35 percent stated their partner was often critical of them.3
While advocating marriage, we must be sensitive to those who have chosen to
terminate their marriage. There could be legitimate reasons or grounds for
divorce. An estimated 30 percent of the divorces in the U.S. involve marital
relationships with a high degree of conflict.4 Sometimes violence, physical and
mental abuse, and/or threat of life to spouse and children are also present in
these highly conflicted relationships. In these situations divorce is most often
in the best interest of those involved. Chronic addiction or substance abuse,
psychosis or extreme mental illness, and physical or mental abuse are also
reasons to divorce.5
Couples who divorce, particularly for the reasons
noted, often need the help and support of family, friends, neighbors, religious
leaders, and others in their respective communities. This is particularly so
where children are involved. The adjustment to divorce is often difficult and
apparently lasts for a considerable period of time. Legal assistance is needed,
and sometimes couples may need counseling or therapy before, during, and after
the separation for themselves and their children, if they have them. Competent
counselors and therapists are available to assist in this transition.
are at the marriage crossroads and trying to decide whether to divorce or stay
marriedor if someone you know is carefully consider the following
thirteen items before you make your “informed decision”:
1. The Other 70 Percent of Divorces
When we note that 30
percent of divorces involve couples in highly conflicted marriages, a question
arises about the other 70 percent: Should they divorce or stay married? There
are, perhaps, strong reasons for separating in some of these relationships as
One study reported that the major reasons marriages fail are (in rank
order) (1) infidelity, (2) no longer in love, (3) emotional problems, (4)
financial problems, (5) sexual problems, (6) problems with in-laws, (7) neglect
of children, (8) physical abuse, (9) alcohol, (10) job conflicts (11)
communication problems, and (12) married too young.6
abuse was ranked as number eight in reasons for divorce, and “no longer in love”
ranked as the number two reason for divorce. Many marriages seem to end from
burnout rather than blowout. A significant number of these couples could work
through their problems, revive their love, and stay married if they desired and
worked at it. Only the husband and wife involved in a particular marriage,
however, can make that decision as they are the ones who must ultimately abide
by the consequences of their choices.
It is becoming increasingly evident,
however, to those who study marriage trends in the United States, that a large
number of divorces could, and perhaps should, be avoided in the best interests
of those involved.
It is finally time to renounce openly and clearlythe self-
serving platitudes about independence and fulfillment and look at the reality of
divorce. We act too frequently as if every infirm marriage deserves to die,
based simply upon the emotional report of one distressed partner. Rather than
viewing a separation first with alarm, we’re full of sympathy for a divorcing
friend, and we offer understanding of the temporary insanity involved in
severing old ties…. If you hear someone for whom you have any feeling at all
hinting at separation, instead of tacitly endorsing the move, instantly protest.
Nearly every marriage has something worth preserving, something that can be
restored. Revitalizing a relationship brings triumph and ongoing reward….
Avoiding divorce spares those concerned from the greatest trauma of their
2. What are the Benefits of a Stable Marriage?
researchers and authors have reported the importance of a stable marriage for
As the researchers have gone to press with their work and
produced an enormous literature, one of the most consistent findings is that men
and women do markedly better in all measures of specific and general well-being
when they are married, compared to any of their unmarried counterparts. Married
couples are healthierphysically and mentallyand they live longer,
enjoy a more fulfilled life, and take better care of themselves (and each
other). This has been shown consistently over decades, but it is rarely
mentioned in the popular debate on the family. One of social science’s best-kept
secrets is that marriage is much more than a legal agreement between two people.
Marriage truly makes a difference in the lives of men and women.8
3. What Can Be the Impact of Divorce on Children?
is obvious that a large number of children of divorced parents survive the
experience and later become capable and stable adults.9 But it is also becoming
increasingly evident that many children of divorce are at risk for developing
detrimental behaviors, personality disorders, and disruptive lifestyles. Some of
the variables in adjustment of children to parental divorce are (1) age of child
at divorce, (2) amount of conflict in the marriage, (3) access to both parents
after the divorce, (4) adjustment to a step-parent, if there is one, and (5)
access to other nurturing adults during the childhood years.
Each year, over 1 million American children suffer the divorce of
their parents; moreover, half of the children born this year to parents who are
married will see their parents divorce before they turn 18. Mounting evidence in
social science journals demonstrates that the devastating physical, emotional,
and financial effects that divorce is having on these children will last well
into adulthood and affect future generations. Among these broad and damaging
effects are the following:
• Children whose parents have divorced are
increasingly the victims of abuse. They exhibit more health, behavioral, and
emotional problems, are involved more frequently in crime and drug abuse, and
have higher rates of suicide.
• Children of divorced parents perform more
poorly in reading, spelling, and math. They are also more likely to repeat a
grade and to have higher dropout rates and lower rates of college graduation.
• Families with children that were not poor before the divorce see their
income drop as much as 50 percent. Almost 50 percent of the parents with
children that are going through a divorce move into poverty after the divorce.
• Religious worship, which has been linked to better health, longer
marriages, and better family life, drops after the parents’ divorce.10
divorce of parents, even if it is amicable, tears apart the fundamental unit of
There are two other similar myths about divorce:
Two faulty beliefs provide the foundation for our current attitudes
towards divorce. The first holds that if the parents are happier the children
will be happier, too…. Children are not considered separately from their
parents; their needs, and even their thoughts are subsumed under the adult
agenda…. Indeed, many adults who are trapped in very unhappy marriages would be
surprised to learn that their children are relatively content. They don’t care
if mom and dad sleep in different beds as long as the family is together….
A second myth is based on the premise that divorce is a temporary
crisis that exerts its more harmful effects on parents and children at the time
of the breakup.…The belief that the crisis is temporary underlies the notion
that if acceptable legal arrangements for custody, visits, and child support are
made at the time of the divorce and parents are provided with a few lectures,
the child will soon be fine. It is a view we have fervently embraced and
continue to hold. But it’s misguided.12
In many states, if you do file for divorce and you have children, you
will be required to attend a two-hour class on divorce education before your
divorce is granted. This class is not designed to tell you whether you should
divorce but rather reviews how to deal with it to have the least negative impact
on children. It may be that some couples who file for divorce and attend the
required divorce education class are among those who decide not to proceed with
the termination of their marriage. Perhaps serious thought of the impact of
divorce on children should precede filing for divorce as well.
4. Many Later Regret Divorce
Once people have made the
decision to divorce, how do they later feel about the choice? There may be some
immediate relief in many instances right after the divorce, but how do husbands
and wives feel months or even years later? My current estimates are that about
one-third of the couples who divorce feel they made the right decision, another
one-third are uncertain or have mixed feelings about their divorce, and
approximately one-third of divorced couples eventually regret the decision
within five years.
In addition, many divorced people in the United States
apparently wish they had made a greater effort to make their marriage work. In
Minnesota, 66 percent of those who are currently divorced answered “yes” to the
question, “Do you wish you and your ex-spouse had tried harder to work through
your differences?” In a New Jersey poll, 46 percent of divorced people reported
that they wished they and their ex-spouse had tried harder to work through their
differences. Research from Australia indicates that of people who divorce, “one
third regret the decision five years later. Of the individuals involved, two in
five (40 percent) believe their divorce could have been avoided.”13 A recent
letter-to-the editor in a large U.S. newspaper reflected the sentiments of one
man among the estimated one-third who regretted his divorce. Under the title
“Divorce Isn’t Worth the Cost,” he wrote:
I would wish to comment on the letter that ran Jan. 2 concerning the
weakening of men and children through divorce. Anne Smart-Pearce was the author.
To my great sorrow, I must admit I am a divorced husband and father. Anne speaks
of the terrible price that is being paid and then asks, “If a mother had an
equal fear of losing her children, would she so readily seek a divorce? Or would
she do all in her power to avert such a tragic outcome?”
Might I add this,
husbands and wives, if there is even one-half of an ounce of friendliness left
in your marriage, take each other by the hand, look at each other’s eyes and
then remember the love that brought you together in the first place! Let each
other know, somehow, that you are needed, loved, and wanted! If you fail, you
will reap the whirlwind, especially you, fathers. You will lose all that is
important, near and dear to you. And that is your sweet wife, your wonderful
children, and your home.
Oh, that I had been more wise and not let my pride
be my downfall. I can tell you with knowledge that a seemingly endless tragedy
does await! The mornings do come when you awake, call her name, and then realize
that you are alone in a house that is ever silent and does not answer back.14
5. Should Couples Work on Their Marriage?
if not all, marriages go through peaks and valleys, times of highs and lows.
Most of married life, however, is spent cycling between these two extremes.
During difficult times, between 40-50 percent of currently married spouses seek
divorce and follow through with it. And, as previously noted, about 20 percent
of those who stay married consider leaving a marriage partner but later choose
not to do so. The vast majority of unhappily married couples in the United
States apparently do improve their relationship if they stay married. (See
sidebars, pp. 25 & 29, for several suggestions on available resources.)
6. The Big Bounce Back
Researchers have asked and then
answered this question:
How many unhappy couples turn their marriages
around? The truth is shocking: 86 percent of unhappily married people who stick
it out find that, five years later, their marriages are happier, according to an
analysis of the National Survey of Families and Households. Most say, they’ve
become very happy indeed. In fact, nearly three-fifths of those who said their
marriage was unhappy in the late ’80s and who stay married, rated this same
marriage as either “very happy” or “quite happy” when interviewed again in the
The very worst marriages showed the most dramatic turnarounds: 77
percent of the stable married people who rated their marriage as very unhappy (a
one on a scale of one to seven) in the late ’80s said that the same marriage was
either “very happy” or “quite happy” five years later. Permanent marital
unhappiness is surprisingly rare among couples who stick it out. Five years
later, just 15 percent of those who initially said they were very unhappily
married (and who stayed married) ranked their marriage as not unhappy at all.15
Also, it is important to note that, according to recent research,
unhappily married adults who divorced were no happier or healthier five years
later than unhappily married adults who stayed married, even if the divorced
spouses remarried.16 Apparently divorce is not a good bet to make us happier and
healthier. Indeed, the evidence is just the opposite.
7. Calculate the Financial Consequences of Terminating Your
The financial costs to married couples for divorce are often
substantial. These costs include legal or lawyers’ fees, which average $7,000
per couple ($3,500 per person) in the United States.17 Some divorces cost more;
others less. An uncontested divorce involving no children in Utah costs between
$500-$1,000. If the proceedings go to court and there is litigation, costs go as
high as $10,000-$20,000 for legal fees. If there is a sizeable amount of
property and prolonged litigation, costs could be $40,000-$60,000 and even as
high as $100,000 or more in some cases. The hourly wage for many lawyers today
is $200-$300. The use of accredited divorce mediation services can help reduce
There will also be additional costs for housing, moving expenses,
transportation, potential loss of income during divorce proceedings and
transition, additional occupational trainingparticularly for custodial
spouse of children (if children are involved)child care, partial loss of
retirement benefits, and sometimes additional costs to state government,
extended family members, and charities if initial income is minimal. There may
also be considerable financial consequences during retirement for husband, wife,
Also consider that “Families with children that were not poor
before the divorce see their income drop as much as 50 percent. Almost 50
percent of the parents with children that are going through a divorce move into
poverty after the divorce.”18 Perhaps the greatest costs of divorce, however,
are not financial, but the emotional costs that were previous noted.
8. Think about the Long-term Consequences of Your Decision
Many who divorce are satisfied with the decision to end their marriage.
But it is becoming increasing evident that a significant number, as many as
one-third, later regret their divorce. This is particularly so when the
long-term consequences are experienced or actually encountered. Seriously
consider not only the apparent immediate benefits of divorce but also the
long-term consequences many others have experienced. Divorce is a decision that
many make but later regret. And most divorces are forever.
9. Take Time to Make Your Decision
The decision whether to
divorce is one of the most important ones you will ever make. And if you do
decide not to divorce right away and want to work on improving your marriage,
take several months to do so. As previously noted, 86 percent of unhappily
married couples bounce back within five years. Your marriage, however, may not
take as long to turn around. Also, be aware of questionable advice you may
receive during this time from others, particularly peers who are divorced or
unhappily married. Remember, love lost can be regained in time with new skills
10. Use Discretion When Seeking Marriage Counseling
If you do seek marriage counseling, be very careful in choosing your
therapist. Make sure the therapist understands your desire to work on improving
your marriage, and ask your therapist to help you in this endeavor. Also, make
sure the therapist has been trained in helping couples stay together, where
possible. Professional and competent counselors will honor this request. Discuss
the fees in advance, which range from $60 to $100 or more for a fifty-minute
session. Many Health Maintenance Organi-zations (HMOs) currently do not pay for
marriage counseling. In addition, if you seek personal counseling, HMOs will
often determine whom you will see and the number of sessions you are allowed.
Choose wisely from among the therapists allowed on your insurance program, if
you have one. Remember: they are working for you and your marriage! Before you
choose a counselor, review the article “How Therapy Can Be Hazardous to Your
Marital Health,” by William J. Doherty, Ph.D. Read his comments about
“therapy-induced marital suicide.”19
Although marriage counseling with a
competent therapist can be invaluable for some distressed couples, most couples
turn their marriages around without formal counseling. Of course, many couples
seek help from their religious leaders, with men generally preferring
11. Consult with Your Religious Leaders or Advisors
and/or your spouse are religious people and belong to a particular faith or
denomination, I urge you to seriously consider talking to your religious
leaders. They often are a great source of hope and encouragement by adding the
spiritual dimension to marriage during difficult times. Consider attending
religious services while you are making your decision about divorce. Married
couples who do attend religious services on a weekly basis have a one-third
lower divorce rate than those who do not.21
12. Learn from Other Married Couples who have been at the Crossroads
There are couples in the United States who have seriously considered
divorce and then decided to work on their marriages and stay together. Some of
these couples are available to conduct seminars and workshops. One such national
and nondenominational group is Retrouvaille (A French word meaning “rediscovery”
and pronounced “retro-vi”.) When both husband and wife attend Retrouvaille
meetings and work at their marriage, the success rate of staying together is 85
13. Remember the 9/11 Alert
Almost everyone in the
United States will remember September 11, 2001 (ninth month, eleventh day) when
the two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and another
plane crashed into the Pentagon Building in Washington, D.C., and fourth in
Pennsylvania. We all witnessed over and over the tragic details of these events
and the aftermath as it was broadcast again and again on national and local
television programs. These vivid images will likely remain with us for many
years to come.
What some may not know, however, is that immediately
following these tragic events, many married couples withdrew their applications
for divorce on file before September 11, 2001. In Houston, Texas, for example,
“Dismissals in divorce cases have skyrocketed in the Harris County Family Law
courts since the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Family-law cases, the vast
majority of which are divorces, have been dismissed in nearly three times the
volume in the days after the tragedy as in the days before it.”23 Similar trends
apparently occurred elsewhere, although they did not last long .
this brief trend after September 11, 2001, suggest? Why were so many military
personnel married in the following weeks before they were deployed for duty
abroad? Why is it that in times of crisis we place higher value on marriage and
family relationships? Michael Von Blon, a family law attorney in Texas, stated
that in times of tragedy, “people stop and think about the most basic things in
life: companionship, love and family” (ibid). Why do we need a national tragedy
to remind us, once again, of the importance of marriage and family
relationships? Apparently, such events help us realize the value of ancient
Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their
labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that
is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two
lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one
prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not
In presenting this information, I have tried to provide a
balance by first noting that there are situations when divorce is warranted. It
is evident that some individuals are better off not married to each other. I
also have indicated and stated the reasons why I believe it is beneficial for
many, if not most, husbands and wives to stay together and work through their
differences in their marriage. Hopefully, married couples will take the time to
make an “informed decision” when contemplating divorce.
Over two thousand
years ago, Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) stated,
“The first bond of society is marriage.” I believe it still is.
Dr. Brent A. Barlow teaches at Brigham Young University and has
served as chair of the Governor’s Commission on Marriage in Utah since 1998.
Thanks to David Schramm, David White, and Lisa Evans who helped write
1 Michelle Weiner Davis, Divorce Busting; A Step-by Step
Approach to Making Your Marriage Loving Again (New York: Simon And Schuster,
2 David H. Olson and John Defrain, Marriage and the Family,
Diversity and Strengths. (Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1994)
3 ibid., 6.
4 Paul R. Amato and Alan A. Booth, A Generation at Risk;
Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1997) 220.
5 Diane Medved, The Case Against Divorce:
Discover the Lures, the Lies, and the Emotional Traps of DivorcePlus the
Seven Vital Reasons to Stay Together (New York: Donald I. Fine, Inc. 1989)
6 Olson and Defrain, ibid., 522.
7 Medved, ibid., 11, 73.
Glenn T. Stanton, Why Marriage Matters (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Pinon Press,
9 David B. Larson, James P. Sawyers, and Susan S. Larson, “The
Costly Consequences of Divorce: Assessing the Clinical, Economic, and Public
Health Impact of Marital Disruption in the United States” (Rockville, Maryland:
National Institute for Healthcare Research, 1995) 136.
10 Patrick R. Fagan,
and Robert Rector, “The Effects of Divorce on America” Executive Summary
(Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 5 June 2000 ). Available on Smart
Marriage home page under Marriage Reports. www.smartmarriages.com.
Laumann-Billings, and Robert E. Emery “Distress among Young Adults from Divorced
Families,” Journal of Family Psychology, 14 no. 4 (Dec. 2000): 671-87.
Judith Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy
of Divorce, A Twenty-Five Year Landmark Study (New York: Hyperion, 2000)
13 William J. Doherty, “Questions and Answers on the Minnesota
Covenant Marriage Option,” (University of Minnesota, 1999). Available at
14 Guy M. Bradley, “Letters to the Editor” Deseret
News (11 Jan. 2001) A-10.
15 Linda J. Waite, Don Browning, William J.
Doherty, Maggie Gallagher, Ye Luo, and Scott M. Stanley, Does Divorce Make
People Happy: Findings from a Study of Unhappy Marriages (New York: Institute
for American Values, 2002) 148-49.
16 Waite, et. al., ibid., 11.
Steve Nock, “Calculating the Financial Cost of Divorce” Presentation at the
Smart Marriages Conference, Washington, D.C. 1999).
18 Fagan and Rector,
19 See www.smartmarriages.com.
20 Waite, et. Al., ibid., 29.
21 David B. Larson, James P. Sawyers, and Susan S. Larson, “The Costly
Consequences of Divorce: Assessing the Clinical, Economic, and Public Health
Impact of Marital Disruption in the United States” (Rockville, Maryland:
National Institute for Healthcare Research, 1995) 26.
22 See website at
23 Mary Flood, Houston Chronicle (25 Sept. 2001).
24 Ecclesiastes 4:9-12.