Marriage and Other Long-term Relationships

After 15 years as a domestic relations attorney and mediator, I have thought a lot about why so many marriages end in divorce. As it turns out, I’m not alone! In May 2000, I received a pamphlet from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) entitled “Making Marriage Last, A Guide to Preventing Divorce.” Here are some of the conclusions expressed in that guide, along with some of my own observations.

AAML attorneys report that the most frequent reasons that marriages fail include poor communication, financial problems, a lack of commitment to the marriage, a dramatic change in priorities, and infidelity. Less frequent, but still common, reasons for divorce include failed expectations or unmet needs, addictions and substance abuse, physical/sexual/emotional abuse, and lack of conflict resolution skills.

I found these observations interesting. I fully agree that poor communication is the #1 reason why marriages and other long-term relationships fail. I would also lump the category of “lack of conflict resolution skills” under the “poor communication” category. Different styles of communication are especially common for couples. When one spouse is direct or brusque, his or her words may be interpreted by the other spouse as unkind or even hostile. Even with similar styles of communication, partners must develop skills for finding the right time and style of delivery to address and resolve interpersonal issues.

Often one partner is disinterested in developing those communication skills that are essential to every long-term relationship, because that person is immature, selfish, or perhaps suffers from depression or anxiety. It’s not uncommon during an initial consultation when I ask my new client whether or not there’s been marriage counseling, I receive a response such as “he refused to go” or “we went once but she refused to go back.” It takes a mature person with a healthy self-concept to approach the path of self-reflection and hard work needed to support positive communication over long periods of time.

I’m not sure that I can agree that “a lack of commitment to the marriage, a dramatic change in priorities, and infidelity” qualify as reasons why marriages fail. I see these behaviors as symptoms of an unhappy marriage rather than the cause. Sometimes after a long period of almost no physical contact or emotional closeness, a wife has a brief affair. Despite her desire to reconcile, her husband cannot get past her infidelity, and the marriage ends. The husband may blame the end of the marriage on the infidelity, when, in effect, both parties participated in the end of the marriage. The husband may see himself as a good provider and good father, so he is bewildered and hurt by his wife’s affair. Had they been able to look within themselves at their own behavior that led to the affair, perhaps the couple could have worked together to rebuild a marriage based on love, partnership, and trust.

I do agree that financial problems are a common cause for divorce. Differences in how spouses deal with money issues can certainly cause tension; a marriage pairing a spender with a saver may be just the right balance or it can be a recipe for disaster. I note that among other “causes” for divorce, mental health issues are significant factors, and that there is an alarming amount of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in our society.

I agree that “failed expectations or unmet needs” is a common reason for divorce. Our society places a very high value on marriage. Marriage is presented as the “ideal relationship”, but little or no guidance is given to those of us who assume the commitment. Despite society’s stamp of approval on marriage, the fact remains that long-term relationships are not for everyone. Some of us are naturally suited for the lifestyle choices that it takes to remain together as a couple for many years, while others function best in non-traditional and/or short-term relationships.

As a society, we need to recognize the different types of relationships that work best for each individual and couple by honoring our differences and supporting each other. I believe that it is possible to have a successful marriage or long-term partnership if both individuals are committed to doing the personal growth needed to sustain the relationship. There are clearly times, however, when the best decision for a couple is to separate or divorce. As I work with my clients experiencing transition in their family lives, I hope to empower them to gracefully transition through separation and divorce.

June 2000