UNT researchers study triggers in divorce decisions

Friday, April 15, 2016 - 14:31

DENTON (UNT), Texas – Wedding season is here, and while celebrating is in order for most new couples, statistics show about 40 to 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Researchers from the University of North Texas are learning that some elements of couples' decisions about their marital status can be tied to triggering events, such as holidays, anniversaries or other meaningful moments.

Kelly Roberts, assistant professor in education psychology in UNT's College of Education, is leading the qualitative research team with the National Divorce Decision Making Project, a study that includes researchers from five other universities in the United States and Canada. The study seeks to determine how people think about divorce, the decision-making process people go through while deciding whether to divorce or perhaps reconcile, and how they change during that process.

Roberts said couples might consider divorce for many months or even years, but some kind of tipping point or pivotal moment might be the trigger to push someone toward divorce court.

"Holidays like Christmas and Valentine's Day might put someone into a holding pattern," said Roberts. "We find people cycle through fantasies of being out of their marriage, but those plans are put on hold for the holidays or other significant moments in their lives. People say 'I just need to get through Christmas,' and then as soon as Christmas is over, boom, everything piles up, and they're dealing with it even more than they were before."

Roberts said these triggers can be tied to other events, including anniversaries or other life events, such as an illness, a child reaching a school-related milestone or the gain or loss of a job.

"Everyone has his or her own individual triggers, though they may not be as intense as celebrations or holidays," Roberts said. "If you're in a marriage, your family may attach an important meaning to, say, Independence Day. Or a couple may try to focus on finishing a job first or waiting until their last child finishes high school. It won't be as significant for everyone, but it's certainly his or her individual pivotal moment or transition point. Events, feelings, rationalizations or big discussions with friends or family members that are important to any couple will certainly play a part in their thinking."

But the transition points can't guarantee any particular outcome. Roberts said many people considering divorce will eventually decide to stick with their marriage, while others who think their marriage is unbreakable may eventually decide to divorce.

"We know people change their minds a lot," said Roberts. "Any given event can nudge them one way or the other. Of the people who wanted to give up on their marriage at one point, then stuck it out, we've learned that later in life, 90 percent are glad they stuck with it and glad they didn't give up on their marriage. So if you get through that fire, there's a very strong chance you'll be glad you did."

Roberts said an important element of the research is reminding people that thinking about divorce is not unusual or indicative of a personal failure.

"People need to understand that everyone goes through this," said Roberts. "We know that one in four people have thought about divorce, but many couples don't understand that this is so common. Thinking about divorce is private, and talking about it is hard to do, so they feel alone. But people we've been interviewing for our research read our summary statements, and they realize they're not alone -- there are other people thinking this and going through the same struggles. It helps them feel normal instead of isolated or wrong. People need to know this is normal – but getting through it is normal, too."

UNT News Service
(940) 565-2108