The risk factors leading to marital breakdown

Do marriages that end in separation or divorce share certain traits, risk factors that allow us to predict which couples will stay together and which ones will not? The answer is, yes.

In my previous blog I referred to the studies of Paul Amato, a sociologist of marriage from Pennsylvania State University. He pointed out that somewhat more than half of marriages that break up were low-conflict, not high-conflict, which means the relationships were not abusive and had low levels of discord.  They may even have been outwardly happy, especially to the children.

Using data from the US National Survey of Families and Households, Amato and his collaborators tried to identify possible predictors of marriage breakdown. He looks at both types of marriages that end in break up, high-conflict ones and low-conflict ones, and finds certain common predictors of divorce or separation.

These are:

  • marrying at an early age
  • cohabiting with other partners prior to the current marriage
  • having divorced parents
  • having stepchildren in the household
  • holding liberal family values
  • believing in the acceptability of divorce

As most of those factors are more present in our society nowadays compared to the past, it follows that couples have never been at higher risk of breaking up.

Believing that a better alternative to a present spouse is available is also an important factor. A substantial percentage of spouses in both groups began dating within one month after the separation. In other words, they had someone else in mind when they left their marriage.

Speaking of people in low conflict marriage who nonetheless break up, Paul Amato notes: “The absence of barriers [to breaking up] and the availability of alternatives [another person] may entice some moderately happy individuals to leave their marriages and to seek greater happiness with different partners”.

How do they fare afterwards? Do they find the happiness they seek? Not necessarily. Divorced individuals generally experience a lower level of well-being than do married ones. Also, subjective well-being tends to decline following divorce and so does the general standard of living. Those who raise their children, now have to do it without the daily help of the other parent, and those who don’t, often see the ties with their children become weaker. There is always much emotional cost involved.

We are nearing the end of another divorce referendum, this one aimed at removing the waiting time for divorce from the Constitution, but we have not seriously discussed what causes a marriage to break up in the first place. There has been discussion of abusive relationships, but none at all of the fact that most marriages that end are not high conflict and could possibly have been saved.

We have not looked at the risk factors that lead to divorce or separation and how to reduce these, or how a marital breakup can affect children. In other words, there has been no proper discussion at all. As usual.