How Common is it to Think About Divorce?


Although the overall rates of divorce in the United States may have declined since the early 1980’s, there is still a large percentage of marriages that end in divorce.  A lot of divorce research has focused on struggles that lead to marital breakdown, but strangely, researchers know little about how people consider the option of divorce.   In a culture with high divorce rates and widespread concerns about the fragility of marriage, it is hard not to have some thoughts about divorce when problems and disappointments exist in the marriage.

One study by The National Divorce Decision-Making Project that surveyed a large national sample of married individuals (ages 25-50) looked to gain more insight into how common it is to think about divorce, what the researchers called “divorce ideation.”  They explored answers to questions such as:  What are people thinking when they are thinking about divorce?  How often and how long have they been having thoughts about divorce?  Who do they talk to about their thoughts and feelings?  What marital problems are they facing? And how do they seek help? Here are some of the things that the researchers found.

What are they thinking?

Overall, 1 in 4 (25%) survey participants reported some recent thoughts about divorce. Of those that had recently thought about divorce, 40% have spoken with their spouse about these thoughts.   It seems it may be somewhat common that both spouses are thinking about divorce at the same time. The study also found in about half of those marriages in which someone had recently thought about divorce, the spouse also was having thoughts about divorce.

How many have thought about divorce in the past but have not had recent thoughts?  About 1 in 4 (28%) said that in the past they had thought their marriage was in serious trouble and thought about divorce.  Of this group, 9 in 10 (90%) were happy they decided to stay together and were happy in their marriage.   So even if there were serious problems at one time, many recover to find happiness again. (Of course, some were unhappily divorced and they were not included in this study.)

Is thinking about divorce most common in the early years of marriage?  Yes. But this study found that the percentages of individuals thinking about divorce was pretty steady (about 25%) up to 15 years of marriage.  Thoughts of divorce started to decline after about 15 years of marriage. After about 20 years, about 1 in 8 individuals was recently thinking about divorce.

Are there some differences between men and women? More and less educated? More or less religious?  There are some differences in thoughts of divorce among some demographic groups, but they are small.  For example, women were a little more likely to have recently thought about divorce compared to men (27% vs. 22%).  This finding is interesting because previous research shows wives are more likely to want the divorce, and twice as likely to initiate a legal divorce petition, but there isn’t much difference in thoughts about getting a divorce. 1

Along the same lines, previous research indicates divorce is more common for those who are less educated. 2 But this study found individuals with some college education were a little more likely to have recently thought about divorce (but not so if they had finished college).  In addition, previous research indicates those who are more devout in their religion are less likely to divorce, but this study found they were just as likely to have had recent thoughts about divorce.  This may indicate there is a difference between divorce ideation – thinking about divorce – and actual divorce.

Overall, the study didn’t find a lot of group differences in thinking about divorce. Living in a society with high divorce rates may mean that everyone is at risk for having thoughts about divorce. Actually divorcing, however, is predicted by many different factors, including education and religious devotion.

How often (and how long) do people think about divorce?

It turns out that knowing how often people think about divorce – not just whether they have thought about it recently – is important to understand. Most of the people in this study who recently thought about divorce did so only a few times recently (70%).  About 1 in 8 (12%) said they thought about divorce a lot of times recently; about 1 in 5 (18%) said they thought about it several times recently.  Follow-up interviews indicated thinking about divorce can change pretty quickly.  Some people go from thinking about divorce a lot to not thinking about it at all only a short time later.

How long do people think about divorce?  About 1 in 3 (37%) people in the study who had been thinking about divorce had been thinking for 2 years or more.  Another 1 in 6 (16%) had been thinking about divorce between 1-2 years. Less than 1 in 3 had been thinking about divorce for 6 months or less.  It is interesting that those who had been thinking about divorce more frequently were more likely to have been thinking about it for an extended time.  This may challenge the notion that many people make quick decisions when it comes to divorce.

When someone is thinking about divorce, who are they most likely to speak to about it?

Results from this study indicate about 60% of survey respondents had spoken to someone about their thoughts of divorce.  Most often the person they spoke with was a family member or a friend/co-worker.   Survey participants indicated talking to others about their problem was helpful.  This finding is interesting because of the common belief that talking about marital problems with others violates marital boundaries.  Certainly, deciding who to speak with and how you speak about your marriage is important.  But overall, it seems talking with someone about your thoughts on divorce can be helpful.

Interestingly, only about one in six talked to a marriage counselor and only one in eight spoke with a religious leader about their problems.  It seems that thoughts about divorce don’t often motivate people to seek out professional or religious help, although almost everyone who did get professional or religious counseling said it was helpful. Study findings also indicated those who think about divorce more often also were more likely to speak to others about their concerns.

Are There Common Marital Problems?

Those who have had recent thoughts about divorce were asked to report on their major marital problems as a reason for thinking about divorce.  There were 16 options to select from and the problems were broken down into three categories:  Low, moderate, and high intense problems.

Low-intense problems – personal habits, working too much, dividing domestic labor, unable to talk, losing romantic feelings, and/or not committed.

Moderately intense problems – mental health, arguing too much, sexual relationship, handling money.

High-intense problems – infidelity, drug/alcohol abuse, physical abuse, and/or emotional abuse.


When people are thinking about divorce, where do they turn for help?

Participants in this study were asked to report on their help seeking behavior when they were thinking about divorce.  The findings suggest most were trying to do something about their thoughts of divorce. Some sought help through direct actions such as forgiving their spouse, while others gathered information through online resources or speaking with friend.  Another option was to seek professional help through a marriage counselor or take a marriage-strengthening class. Here is a chart of some of the most common actions people took:

As you can see, the most common actions taken were just working harder on the relationship and having a serious talk with the spouse about problems. Another common action taken to help the relationship was to forgive a spouse for something. (A spouse forgiving the survey respondent also was common.)

What about information seeking?  There was a drop in the amount of information seeking compared to direct actions, but at least a third of survey respondents indicated they sought out information as a way to help repair their thoughts on divorce.  Some spoke with someone else about their problems (34%) or researched information online (34%).  The least used method was to read self-help books (30%), yet this was listed as the most helpful of the information seeking behaviors.

What about professional help-seeking?  Even fewer respondents took advantage of professional help-seeking actions, but they were still considered highly valuable.  The most common action was to see a counselor, either alone or with a spouse. Only about 1 in 6 counseled with a religious leader, although this action was rated as the most helpful.

What are some of the feelings of those who are thinking about divorce? Were they mostly sad and hopeless?

There were some surprising findings in the study about this question. Most people who were thinking about divorce indicated that, although they were having thoughts, generally they were not unhappy in their marriage, they just weren’t at the top of the happiness scale.  Most were also open to fixing problems and saving their marriage.  When asked about their attitudes, only 5% said they were “done with the marriage.”  More than 4 in 10 (43%) reported they didn’t want a divorce and that they were willing to work hard to keep the marriage together.  Over half indicated they would feel like a failure if their marriage ended in divorce.  And ultimately, most people who recently thought about divorce were still pretty hopeful their relationship would last over the long-term.

Are some people more serious thinkers than others?

Yes, some people are more serious about their thoughts of divorce than others.  This study used some advanced statistical analyses to put a lot of the responses together and the findings indicated there are two different types of “thinkers” about divorce.  The researchers labeled them “soft thinkers” and “serious thinkers.”

Who are the soft thinkers? The study found a little over half (53%) of those who had recent thoughts about divorce were soft thinkers.  In this group, 90% answered that they thought about divorce only a few times; only 1% said they thought about divorce often.  Soft thinkers also appeared to have a different attitude about a divorce.  They were almost three times more likely to say they did not want a divorce, and they were willing to work hard on their marriage. Overall, soft thinkers tended to be more hopeful their relationship would work out.

Who are the serious thinkers? Serious thinkers tended to think about divorce more often.  They also tended to have more problems in their marriage, both the more common low-intensity problems and the higher-intensity problems.  Serious thinkers were much more likely than soft thinkers to say they were done with marriage and not willing to work on it. But interestingly, this was still only a small proportion of the serious thinkers; only about 10% of them said they were done with the marriage.  And although the group was less hopeful than soft thinkers that their marriage would work out, most still had some hope for the marriage. It seems there is a lot of power in hope.  Even when things are more serious, most people are still hoping to save their marriage.

Find the research support here.