BYU Research Reveals that Divorce Thoughts are Common
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Family Focus

Divide or Conquer

Thoughts about divorce are common—perhaps even inevitable—and don’t mean the end of a relationship.

A photo of a wedding ring lying on top of a text. The ring circles the word "joined" in the text.
That marital partners somehow complete each other without challenges is a myth, says researcher Alan Hawkins. Marriage asks us to stay committed when it’s not easy. Photo by Bradley Slade.

As their six children entered their junior high and high school years, Cora (BA ’79) and Hugh (BS ’75) Cummings* began fighting frequently over how to handle typical teenager problem behaviors.

“I criticized him when I felt like he overpunished, and he criticized me when he felt like I underpunished,” says Cora. “A big division opened up. Our children played us against each other to get what they wanted.”

The couple’s anger and fighting escalated, and when one son became involved in drugs, “our disagreements about what to do reached a terrible pitch,” says Cora. Hugh began threatening to leave and file for divorce, and eventually Cora agreed divorce would probably be best for everyone.

At this point the couple became “serious divorce thinkers,” according to BYU School of Family Life professor Alan J. Hawkins (BS ’79, MOB ’84), lead author of a recent article in the journal Family Process on divorce. Hawkins and his colleagues surveyed 3,000 married people, ages 25 to 50, twice, one year apart, to study how thoughts about divorce play into the eventual decision to split or stick it out.

Divorce seems so prevalent in our society, Hawkins says, that it can be difficult not to think of it as an option when the going gets rough. He says that if couples can understand the range of divorce ideation, they can keep occasional thoughts of divorce in perspective and deal more constructively with serious thoughts. This, he believes, will make couples more likely to stay married or give them greater clarity about possible divorce.

Soft Divorce Ideation

It’s not unusual for couples to have “soft” thoughts of divorce from time to time. Of those surveyed in Hawkins’s study, 25 percent had thought about divorce in the previous six months, while 53 percent had thought about it at some point in the marriage. “‘Soft’ doesn’t mean ‘no big deal’ or painless,” Hawkins says. “It means that divorce isn’t really a serious consideration, even if there are frustrations and disappointments.” Soft thoughts aren’t black or white, as in “I want a divorce,” but are somewhere in between, like “I don’t want to spend as much time with him as I used to” or “This marriage is not what I thought it would be.”

“It’s not unusual for couples to have ‘soft’ thoughts of divorce from time to time.”

Cora’s soft thoughts about divorce began early on, when Hugh decided unilaterally there would be no birth control and Cora subsequently bore four children in five years.

“I loved being a mother,” she says, “but I was overwhelmed and resentful because I felt I didn’t have a voice in my marriage.”

Hawkins’s study found that soft thoughts are more common than serious thoughts. “Those thoughts will creep in,” says Hawkins, “but often they’re occasional and don’t mean anyone’s bailing. I can have these thoughts and be fully committed to making my marriage work.” Almost no soft thinkers in the study were divorced after a year, and many of their marriages were thriving, says Hawkins, perhaps because divorce thoughts had motivated them to work harder on their relationship.

Is It Over?

Some in the study had serious divorce thoughts. Hawkins says these men and women generally were experiencing a lot of pain and challenges in their marriages. While more of them were likely to be divorced one year later, this was still a small number (5 percent). “We don’t find much evidence of ‘quickie’ divorces,” Hawkins says. “Most people who are thinking about divorce have been thinking about it for a year or more.”

Cora and Hugh found it excruciating when they believed divorce was inevitable. “This was a very sad time,” says Cora. “We spent little time together even though we were still in the same house. I cried a lot, he yelled a lot, and our children struggled. We plugged along for about a year with the divorce bubble hanging over us.”

Despite the pain, Hawkins says these marriages aren’t beyond repair. In fact, thoughts about divorce can be just what is needed to take action. He says the most important question to ask is, “Are we both willing to work at this?” If both say yes, Hawkins believes there’s hope, even for those whose challenges might include the three As—adultery, addiction, or abuse—though these make eventual divorce more likely.

“We don’t find much evidence of ‘quickie’ divorces.” —Alan Hawkins

If couples decide to work it out, Hawkins says seeking professional counseling can offer real help. Only a small proportion of couples in the study sought counseling, hesitating because of the social stigma, the cost, or the fear that counseling would make things worse. Hawkins says it’s important not to delay: “Therapists tell researchers the number-one barrier to their ability to save a marriage is that couples come in for counseling too late.”

Other helps include marriage courses, self-help books or online programs, and counsel from clergy, family, or friends (see sidebar at end of article). Hawkins says that the study found that the most common thing individuals report doing to help their marriage is sitting down and having a heart-to-heart discussion with their spouse.

“A serious conversation about things that need to change—not a threat of divorce—can be a wake-up call for couples,” Hawkins says. “Couples often forgive and ask for forgiveness in these talks. Doing this can change attitudes and move people away from divorce.”

For Cora and Hugh, unexpected counsel to Cora from their bishop had a profound effect. As their bishop was setting Cora apart for a new calling, he blessed her with “the courage and strength” to keep her family together.

“The weight of those words burned in my heart,” says Cora. “I went home and told my husband, and he felt the confirming Spirit. We both renewed our commitment to continue with our marriage.” They decided not to say “the d word” again or to threaten each other with quitting or walking out.

Giving a relationship time to heal can be effective—90 percent of couples who stuck it out despite previously experiencing thoughts about divorce said that they were glad they did and that “over time, things got better or weren’t as hard.” These past thinkers reported high levels of marital happiness.

“Did our troubles go away? Did we continue to disagree? No and yes,” says Cora. “But we had a conviction that we were on the right path and that God was with us. We sought help, prayed over our family, and continued our activity in our ward—and our marriage got stronger.”

Revising the Marriage Narrative

While Hawkins acknowledges that some divorces are necessary, he also emphasizes that other divorces are preventable. He believes transforming how our society thinks and talks about marriage could help to lower divorce rates.

“The story about marriage in our society is about romance, passion, and ‘you completing me,’” says Hawkins. “I don’t want to remove the shine from these ideas, but we do need a deeper understanding about the meaning and purpose of marriage—that marriage is going to ask you to sacrifice and stay committed when it’s not easy. It’s a myth that somehow we magically complete each other without the challenges and problems.”

“The most important question to ask is, ‘Are we both willing to work at this?’”

When the hard times do arrive, couples can boldly rise to the challenges, but mostly, says Hawkins, “you just have to muck your way through them with respect and compassion. If you do, you’ll find that eventually two have become one. Your primary identity becomes us, not me. The hard things and sacrifices get us to a stronger bond that has even more beauty than the initial shine of romance and attraction.”

For Cora and Hugh, staying together for 42 years now has been more rewarding than either could have imagined. “We continue to have differences of opinion, but we try hard to work them out or we just leave them alone,” says Cora. “The Church and the gospel have given us a cord of strength that we each hold on to as life’s mountains and valleys fly by.” •

Sue Bergin is a clinical chaplain life coach with Symmetry Solutions and teaches writing in the BYU Marriott School of Business.

*Names have been changed.

Helping Someone Considering Divorce

Often people who have divorce thoughts turn to others to work through them. School of Family Life professor Alan J. Hawkins (BS ’79, MOB ’84) offers advice on how friends, family members, ecclesiastical leaders, and professionals can provide support and avoid causing harm:

• Assure those sharing divorce thoughts that such feelings are common and don’t mean the relationship is headed for divorce.

• Be appropriately open about marital struggles you’ve had. If you’re too private, others can feel alone. As you share, carefully calibrate how much detail to provide. Don’t demean your spouse or breach confidences.

• Offer the reminder that professional help can be a godsend. Most problems are solvable, and couples don’t have to struggle with them for years.