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Why Do Marriages Breakdown?

Rapid social, economic and technological changes over the past 30 years have had a significant impact on marriages and families throughout the world.  Couples and families frequently found themselves caught up in the whirlpool of shock, confusion, and emotional trauma that surrounds the breakdown of family relationships. 

Social researchers cite many contributing factors that have influenced these wide spread societal changes:

  • A rise in the participation of females in the work place
  • Changes in gender roles
  • Increased expectations for companionate marriages
  • A rise in male unemployment
  • Declining wages for low skilled workers
  • Improvements in contraceptive technology
  • Liberalising of values towards non-marital sex
  • Declining social and community support
  • The emergence of an ethos of expressive individualism at the expense of commitment
  • The passage of no-fault divorce laws

Statistics documenting the way in which these changes have influenced relationships, and led to a decline in marriages, especially in the major industrialised countries of the western world, are well known.

  • Fewer adults are choosing to get married
  • Many couples choose to cohabitate or live “de facto” (almost 80 per cent prior to marriage)
  • Couples who get married, do so at an older age (28-31 years)
  • Most couples are having fewer children (approximately 2 children)
  • The proportion of children born out of wedlock has dramatically increased
  • There has been a significant increase in the number of couples divorcing (currently, 50 per cent of all first time marriages in the USA are projected to end in divorce.  In Australia and the UK it’s around 30 percent)
  • The number of individuals experiencing separation and divorce has risen by nearly 30 per cent in the last five years
  • The number of children involved in divorce has more than doubled since the mid 1960's with an increasing number growing up in post-divorce families (nearly 35 per cent of all children do not live with their biological fathers.  60 per cent of US children will live in a single parent family before they reach the age of 18 years)
  • 80 per cent of divorced people remarry within three years of being divorced.

Divorce in many countries and cultures has now become normative.  As a result of the continuing high rates of divorce, some social commentators are now referring to today’s society as a “high-divorce culture” in which reconstituted families, shared custody and single parent homes have become common place for both adults and children.  In the United States of America about 26 per cent of American adults have gone through a divorce.

Perceived causes of marital breakdown

Why do marriages breakdown?  There are a number of structural and attitudinal factors that have been found to be associated with the likelihood of marital breakdown and divorce.  Researchers tend to be cautious and somewhat sceptical of the reasons that couples usually give for why they split up.  They have found that couples frequently disagree about the cause of the trouble and the changes that occurred over time in the perception of their experience.  However, some of the commonly accepted reasons for the breakdown of marriages identified by social researchers are:

1.  Low Commitment to the Marriage

Conditions under which the marriage was formed may have prevented one or both partners from being totally committed to the relationship.  The couple may have invested themselves in other things and failed to place high priority on the needs of their partner and the relationship.  It may also be that a fear of emotional closeness may prevent intimacy from developing and create doubts about one’s partner or the relationship.

Early marriages and the lack of maturity to make the commitments required in long term marriages are often associated with marital disillusion.  In Australia 70 per cent of teenage bridegrooms and 50 per cent of teenage brides will be divorced before their 10th wedding anniversary.  30 percent of those who remarry between 20 - 30 years of age are divorced again within a decade.

2.  Unrealistic Expectations

Many individuals and couples enter into marriage with quite unrealistic expectation of what the marriage relationship will provide for them.  When their idealised images of what the relationship will be like are not attained, this often leads to feelings of disillusionment, failure, and depression that a wrong choice has been made.  The crushing sense of differentness shatters the myth of oneness.

3.  Interpersonal Incompetence

Couples who lack the necessary social skills to negotiate the “critical stages” of their marriage and the various transition points in their family life cycle, frequently end up feeling “stuck”.  Afraid to confront each other and unwilling to share honestly their deep inner feelings because of a lack of self-confidence, low self-esteem, or feelings of inadequacy, they slowly begin to drift apart emotionally, unable to address their need for understanding and intimacy.

4.  Lack of Shared Interests and Boredom

A significant proportion of marriages breakdown because both partners begin to pursue separate interests and disparate lifestyles.  33 per cent of women say that their husbands prefer “a night out with the boys” to spending it with them.  Often these marriages lack meaning and purpose and become “boring”, with very little shared time or activity.  Life becomes routine and lacks passion, excitement, and intimacy.

5. An Affair

Approximately one third of marriages end because of an extramarital affair.  Often this infidelity is a “cry for help” by the offending party who may feel trapped in a relationship in which they feel ignored, unappreciated, or insecure.  Frequently there are significant unresolved issues for one or both partners that have their genesis in their relationship with their family of origin.  Feelings of rejection, abandonment or abuse in early childhood, may create gross insecurities in the marriage and prevent the development of affectionate responses or mutual intimacy.

6. A Developmental or Situational Crises

It is not uncommon for marital relationships to breakdown under the trauma and stress of a severe crisis.  Some couples simply cannot survive the extreme pressures of coping with a particular situational (chronic illness, a death in the family, unemployment, bankruptcy, depression, or workaholism in one’s partner), or developmental (excessive conflict over teenage children, relatives or in-laws, a mid-life crisis) crises.  Issues of blame, misunderstanding and betrayal can cause the relationship to flounder as it becomes flooded with negative emotions, grief and despair.

7. An Imbalance in the Relationship

All marriage relationships find a comfortable balance in the distribution of power and authority between the two partners.  When this balance of power is disturbed, or unconsciously altered, it can lead to feelings of frustration, inequity and betrayal.  Issues such as persistent disagreement over gender roles, wide differences in education or earning capacity, or feelings that one’s partner is becoming more independent and less reliant on the relationship for emotional, or financial security, can lead to constant power struggles (either overt or covert) as a way to maintain homeostasis or control.

8. Lack of Communication and Affection

Seventy-six per cent of people who have experienced divorce indicate that their relationship ended because of a lack of companionship.  Clearly they were no longer friends.  They had lost connection and were no longer able to read the verbal or non-verbal messages connect with each other at the feeling level. Fifty per cent of women said that it was the main problem in their marriage.  Research shows that wives are more critical of their husbands and are more likely to report arguments, abuse and violence.  They are also more likely to complain of cruelty, alcohol and drug abuse, physical, verbal and emotional abuse, neglect, a lack of love, sexual incompatibility, financial and in-law problems, and irresponsible behaviour on the part of their partner.  Husbands mostly complain that their wives nagged, whined or found fault with them, or constantly demonstrated immature and irresponsible behaviours.

By Brian Craig