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6 Of The Most Common Precursors To Divorce

Divorce is not uncommon, but the factors that lead to it are often similar amongst couples. Here's what to look out for.


Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 08, 2024

A classic 1997 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family analyzed over a decade's worth of data from thousands of married couples to figure out the top causes of divorce. They came up with six, which are explained below.

While the research was conducted almost 30 years ago, the results are as relevant today as they were when first published.

1. Cheating/Infidelity

Infidelity remains one of the primary precursors to divorce, significantly undermining trust and emotional security within a relationship. When one partner breaches the fidelity pact, it leads to profound emotional pain and a sense of betrayal. This breach can erode the foundation of the relationship, making it difficult for the injured party to regain trust or for the relationship to recover fully.

Psychological studies consistently show that infidelity is not merely a physical act but a breach of emotional commitment and integrity, which are crucial for sustaining a healthy marital bond.

"Consistent with prior literature, infidelity was associated with an especially large increase in the odds of divorce," write the authors, Paul Amato and Stacy Rogers, of the 1997 study.

2. Spending Money Foolishly

Financial disagreements are a leading cause of marital problems, often exacerbated by one partner's irresponsible spending habits. When one spouse consistently makes financial decisions without consulting the other or disregards agreed-upon budgets, it can lead to resentment, stress and ultimately, marital breakdown.

This issue goes beyond financial stability—it reflects deeper issues of respect, communication and mutual goals within the relationship.

Because "financial infidelity" is a top cause of marital problems, researchers have created a Financial Infidelity Scale to measure the extent of the problem. Rating items such as "If I really wanted to purchase something but my partner did not approve of the price, I would consider buying it anyway and not telling them" or "Sometimes I pretend to be saving money when, in reality, I am not" on an agree-disagree scale can help couples get to the root of the problem.

3. Drinking And/Or Drug Use

Substance abuse, including excessive drinking or drug use, can severely strain a marriage and is frequently cited as a precursor to divorce. Substance use disorders can alter behavior, impair judgment and lead to emotional instability, creating an unsafe or unpredictable environment within the relationship.

Moreover, substance abuse often correlates with other issues such as financial strain, neglect of responsibilities and emotional distance—all of which contribute to marital dissatisfaction and conflict.

4. Jealousy

Jealousy, whether rooted in past experiences or current insecurities, can poison a relationship by fostering mistrust and controlling behaviors. Excessive jealousy often reflects underlying issues of low self-esteem, fear of abandonment or unresolved trauma, which can lead to obsessive thoughts, accusations and attempts to control the partner's actions.

Over time, jealousy can suffocate intimacy and erode the emotional connection between partners, making reconciliation challenging without addressing its root causes.

Interestingly, the researchers found that husbands, more than wives, were more likely to cite wives' jealousy as a significant relationship strain. This is also consistent with the finding that husbands reported fewer marital problems overall than wives.

Therapy aimed at building self-esteem, improving communication skills and fostering trust can help couples navigate jealousy constructively and strengthen relationship bonds.

5. Moodiness

Chronic moodiness or emotional volatility can strain marital relationships by creating an unpredictable and tense atmosphere at home. Mood swings, whether caused by underlying mental health conditions or situational stress, can lead to frequent conflicts, emotional distancing and difficulty in resolving disputes calmly.

When one partner's mood fluctuations dominate the relationship dynamics, it can leave the other feeling emotionally neglected or on edge, contributing to feelings of dissatisfaction and, ultimately, the breakdown of marital harmony.

6. Irritating Habits

Over time, seemingly minor habits or behaviors that initially seemed endearing or tolerable can become significant sources of irritation and tension in a marriage.

Whether it's leaving dirty laundry around, constant lateness or persistent forgetfulness, these habits can wear down patience and goodwill between partners. What may start as mild annoyance can escalate into frequent arguments or emotional distancing if left unaddressed.

Couples therapy often focuses on improving communication skills and negotiation strategies to address these problems constructively, fostering mutual understanding and compromise. Addressing problematic habits and behaviors early can prevent them from becoming entrenched sources of conflict that contribute to marital dissatisfaction and, potentially, divorce.

Unsure whether your marriage will stand the test of time? Take the Marital Satisfaction Scale to learn more.

A similar version of this article can also be found on Forbes.com, here.

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