Deborah Hecker, Ph.D.

The following shocking divorce statistics are from the U.S. Census Bureau:

-Around 50% of marriages in the United States end in divorce.
-48% of first marriages end in divorce.
-60% of second marriages end in divorce.
-73% of third marriages end in divorce.
-In America, there is one divorce every 13 seconds. That is 6,636 divorces per day and 46,523 per week.

The above statistics suggest that if people fail at their first marriage, they choose to give it another chance, or two, or even three. This makes sense as the need for secure attachments is part of the human condition.

Yet, despite the repeated attempts, the divorce rate keeps climbing, suggesting that people don’t learn how to have successful relationships.

Should you stay in your troubled marriage or should you divorce? To answer this question, let’s first take a look at the financial and emotional costs of divorce.

The Financial Costs of Divorce

As if the emotional toll isn’t rough enough, couples who split must then confront harsh financial realities. It’s not just the cost of getting the divorce, but also the often-extreme lifestyle shift that comes when one household severs into two.

What are some of those harsh financial consequences of divorce?

According to George Mason University Sociology and law professor Lenore Weitzman in her book, The Divorce Revolution, we see a staggering drop in women’s household incomes, while men, on the other hand, see continued income growth. A typical woman endures a 73 percent reduction in her standard of living after a divorce. Her ex-husband enjoys a 42 percent increased standard of living.

People often say, “I have to get out of my marriage,” but after digging into the numbers they are shocked and wonder if they can afford it.

One of my female clients described her financial dilemma the following way:

My husband, who makes no secret of his dislike for me, makes a good income and together we own a lovely house. The alternative to living with him is being on my own with two little kids and no job training or skill set. Should I stay or should I go?

Another client summed it up this way: Being in a divorce battle and dividing the assets is akin to being held hostage by guerrillas. The sooner you can get out, the better.

If a couple is unable to work through their divorce amicably or with the help of some form of dispute resolution, using an attorney will double, even triple the cost of the divorce.

Money and Emotions = Oil and Water

Let’s talk money and psychology for a moment. Usually, money is thought of in black-and-white terms – either there is enough of it or there isn’t.

However, the truth is that money is chock full of psychological, emotional, and symbolic meanings. A person’s relationship with money mirrors his or her conflicts, vulnerabilities, fears, needs and desires. Our feelings about money and how to manage it are largely dependent on our unique family history.

Emotions and money can be a dangerous combination. In fact, during divorce financial negotiations, emotions can be your worst enemy, leading to both higher legal bills and frazzled nerves. Yet, in the grip of fear for one’s very financial survival, exercising rational judgment can be an uphill battle.

The Emotional Costs of Divorce

Divorce challenges the basic sense of who you are, who you’ve been and who you will become. Transitioning from being part of a couple to being unattached is a journey all divorcing people must embark on.

There are two different processes people go through during the emotional roller coaster of divorce. First, there is the struggle for a more complete sense of personal identity. Post-divorce, you think, If I’m not a part of a couple, then who am I? How am I going to do this on my own?

Second, there is the grief of losing a loved one.

The Importance of Grief to Post-Divorce Healing

All divorcing people will grieve.

From the time we are born, we attach. And where there is attachment, inevitably there will be loss. And where there is loss, as in divorce, there is grief.

Grief consists of a mixture of all of your raw feelings, both positive and negative, sometimes contradictory, which can include longing, fear, anger, love, sadness hate, regret, and guilt.

People in the midst of grieving can experience typical symptoms of depression: difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, negative feelings, low self-esteem and lack of energy.

Your instinct may be to find a way around the pain. Don’t even go there or your capacity for lifelong happiness may be impaired.

Ultimately, divorce can cause massive financial and emotional hardship in two people’s lives. Navigating through this post-divorce period is challenging.

Can Unhappy Marriages Become Happy Again?

You fall in love. Neither one of you has a clue about the problems that will begin to hit you just a few years into the marriage – sometimes just a few months into the marriage. If any of us had the slightest inkling about the bumps in the road ahead, we might be inclined to avoid marriage altogether.

Problems encountered in your marriage are rooted in events that occurred when you were an infant and child, when your identity was formed. How completely your early needs were met will be mirrored in your relationship with your spouse.  If your needs were poorly met, you may expect your spouse to meet them for you – a recipe for disaster.

The truth is that every married couple will be forced to deal with difficulties and many will face the decision to stay married or to divorce.

Individuals at the crossroads of divorce sometimes struggle with a false choice: “Do I divorce so that I can find happiness again, or do I keep the family together and remain unhappy?”

You may be surprised to learn that most unhappy marriages become happy again, if couples can stick it out. While some divorces are necessary, many marriages can be repaired.

It may be difficult to face the issues that you and your spouse are struggling with, but research suggests that couples who can manage to stay together usually end up happier down the road than couples who divorce.

I have heard many individuals express regret that they and their ex-spouse did not work harder to try to save their marriage. In the end, divorce did not make their life better.

Conclusions

We know several things for sure:

  • Any couple who ties the knot can face problems in their marriage.
  • The process of divorce and its aftermath is devastating, both emotionally and financially.
  • Getting divorced and remarried does not improve one’s chances for a successful outcome.

Perhaps problems in a marriage should be considered a wake-up call to work on the marriage rather than take the road leading to divorce.

Wouldn’t it be better if every couple saw their pain as a catalyst to deeply examine their relationship, get professional help and grow stronger?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if each individual could be honest with themselves and take personal responsibility for their contribution to the problems?

If partners choose to invest in their relationship and make needed changes instead of repeating their mistakes, they might be able to avoid an unnecessary divorce. And if they do finally decide to divorce, their personal work in couples therapy might increase their chance of a successful marriage next time. Either way, those alarming statistics could improve.

About 

Dr. Hecker’s 35 year career as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, treating individuals and couples, is defined by her success in helping her clients develop a strong sense of Self and to acquire the skills they need to create long-term committed relationships. Dr. Hecker has developed a cutting edge partnership model, “Yours, Mine, Ours: Partnership Done Right,” which she incorporates into her clinical work. She is the author of “Who Am I Without My Partner? Post-Divorce Healing and Rediscovering your SELF."


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  9. Hi Sam,

    You make a really good point, which is that whatever decision one makes – to stay married or to divorce – that decision is never clear cut Either way, there will always be ambivalence. But, eventually, the scales will tip more heavily in one direction. And even then, one can have conflict.

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  13. Hi Nichola,

    Thank you for your detailed email.

    I am in complete agreement with your notion of targeting adolescents and educating them about healthy interpersonal relationships. I also have given thought to how to best enlighten young people. In this spirit, I believe young children, beginning at the age of 5 should be taught about conflict resolution and how to apply these skills with their peers. Can you imagine what this world would be like if instead of adversarial and competitive relationships we were taught collaboration and resolution of differences at a young age? This knowledge would surely have a positive effect on future marriages.

  14. HI Jeanne,

    Thank you for your comments on Collaborative Divorce. As someone trained in collaborative divorce and mediation, I am very supportive of alternative methods for divorce resolution. Needless to say, not all couples are candidates for this type of dispute resolution. However, if a couple can be convinced of its value, in terms of financial savings and well as favorable interpersonal outcomes, then that is the way to go.

  15. I wish that sex education was not so narrow when teenagers are still in school. The life cycle of long term relationships I feel is paramount to helping individuals and couples not ‘catastrophise’ when they hit a bump in the road, but equally to not throw the baby out with the bathwater if they find certain incompatabilities. Perhaps if these young students who are still open to learning (and schools have much power in this respect) were given the assignment of researching their family’s relationship and emotional history, they might enter relationships better equipped to understand the factors at play and be able to have the conversations that keep the reptilian brain at bay. I, for one, wish that I’d done this. I waited a long term to meet someone who shared my values and for the most part, I have no regrets about who I married. What I deeply regret is my lack of insight into my own ‘patterns of behaviour’ in terms of communicating and the ‘conflict avoidance’ that I mastered for survival at an early age. These things left me without a strong sense of personal emotional boundaries because I was there to serve and keep the peace ‘for others’, in the end, sacrificing my health and sense of self-worth, which ultimately became my undoing during a mid-life crisis. My husband, who walked out post-depression, has yet to make that inward journey of his own and ascribes all the pain to ‘my terrible character’. Life is so strange and cruel sometimes…Mother Nature did play a trick, but I wonder whether or not, we do our own part to make things harder as a society by not flagging these thing with the younger generation. In years gone by, it seems that opportunities for mentoring from older friends and family members were more organic within more closely knit communities. Now, it feels to me that we have lost this ‘connection’ with people who we know, and it is the world of ‘out there’ (with the help of the internet) that seems to influence our young people and usually that world is not older, more experienced human beings, but peers, who have no more experience or wisdom necessarily. There is much good to be gained from the information that is now more readily available, but there is no way of gauging whether what is out there is ‘proven’ because it can’t be witnessed by young people directly. When people are surrounded by so much divorce and break-up, one way of coping with the ‘loss’ is to just accept it as normal. So it is refreshing to have reaffirmed that it’s not an either/or proposition when it comes to unhappy marriages….and hence my deep belief that this message must be shared with those who are still young enough to ‘listen’ and who have lived through the heartache and with the helplessness to do anything about it.

  16. There is a newer movement to help divorce become less painful emotionally and financially while creating growth and change in the process. It is called Collaborative Divorce and it will revolutionize the typically horrible process of divorce that leaves so many people and especially the children scarred and with more baggage that they take into their next relationship (hence the higher rates of divorce the next time(s) around). I agree with the authors assessment of the divorce situation but for those who decide to divorce the Collaborative Divorce method is the way to go. There are more and more trained professionals (and training is absolutely necessary) that can help. Check out ww.collaborativepractice.com to look for trained professionals in your area and find out more. Sometimes it even leads to people NOT divorcing! Best wishes!

  17. Those stats are quite upsetting! And alarmingly different from what I’ve always thought to be true (and what one frequently hears at couples conferences), that 2nd marriages do better. Can you tell us the source for these stats? I’d love to know.( Is it John Gottman?)

    Thanks so much, as always