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  • Why do some couples divorce? Sociologists might answer that question differently than couples themselves. Tweet This
  • The environment probably plays a bigger role in shaping marriages than most divorced people acknowledge in surveys. Tweet This

Leah fought with her new husband, Gary, on their wedding night. Within a month, their marriage “crashed and burned.” Leah, then 23, had been in a relationship with Gary since she was sixteen. When they argued before they were married, Leah said they would always fix the problem. “But once we were married,” she said, “we didn’t want to.”

What did they argue about?

Gary didn’t work—he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and he was uncomfortable in public places. Leah understood that he had a “real disorder” and that it was difficult for him. But she figured that if he isn’t having an anxiety attack, he should be doing something.

“And he just never did,” she said exasperatedly. “He was just content with sitting around playing video games. If you’re fine to play video games, you could do something. And I even told him a million times, ‘At least take care of our house.’”

To pay her mortgage and other bills (Leah owned the house), Leah worked two jobs. When she got home, Gary would be playing video games, and their house was a wreck. “And I got to where I hated him so much,” Leah said. To make Gary mad, she would get drunk.

To add to the stress, Gary invited a friend who was down on his luck, and his child, to live with them for a time. When Leah brought that up in arguments, Gary reminded her that she had let her sister live with them for a while.

Then there was his family—particularly his mother—whom Leah said never really liked her. Leah blamed what she saw as Gary’s laziness on his mom: she coddled him, she says.

Looking back, Leah wishes that they had been more financially stable before getting married. About half of their arguments, she estimates, were about money. “I’d yell at him for never working, he’d yell at me for drinking, and I’d yell at him over the bills some more,” she said. She added, “Money really does do a lot to stress people out.”

Within a year of marriage, they had separated. After separation, they did reconcile for a time, though that ended after Gary accidentally texted Leah a message intended for another woman. Leah concluded he was cheating, and soon after their marriage ended.

Leah interpreted the essential challenge in her marriage as a crisis of character.

It’s noteworthy that while Leah was sympathetic to the difficulty that Gary’s bipolar disorder presented him, and mindful about their money problems, she ultimately didn’t interpret the essential challenge in their marriage as either a mental health crisis or an economic crisis. Rather, she interpreted it as a crisis of character. “He never worked,” was her simple response to our first question about what contributed to the divorce, before adding later “He refused to do anything.”

Leah’s story raises the question, “Why do most people divorce?”

When Paul R. Amato and Denise Previti examined 208 ever-divorced people’s open-ended responses to the question, “What do you think caused the divorce?”, they found 18 categories of responses. The most often-cited category, infidelity, was cited by 22 percent of people. Other reasons included “drinking or drug use” (11 percent), “loss of love” (4 percent), and “financial problems” (2 percent).

What’s surprising is that, despite the common perception that money is at the root of many marriage problems, few divorced people blamed it for ending their marriage. Moreover, the authors found that only 9 percent of people identified “external factors” (such as lack of money or employment problems) as the cause of divorce. Most people cited a problem with their former spouse or with the relationship itself.

That finding appears to confirm something April A. Buck and Lisa A. Neff note in their article on “Stress Spillover in Early Marriage”: “When asked to explain the success or failure of their relationships, individuals rarely acknowledge the role the relationship context may have played in shaping those outcomes.” They also remark on the “common belief in Western society that successful marriages result when both partners ‘work’ at the relationship by engaging in active efforts to behave and think” in ways conducive to a good relationship.

Buck and Neff’s view of the research on how stress affects relationships leads them to think that achieving a successful relationship is more complicated than that. As they approvingly quote Ellen Berscheid, “Some very strong relationships dissolve—not because they weren’t close or committed or loving—but because fate … put their relationship in harm’s way.” Thus, whereas divorced people tend to focus on things within a couple’s control, some of the sociological research on divorce emphasizes that the circumstances largely outside of their control—that is, the environment in which relationships are imbedded—matter at least as much.

The research on how stress affects married couples is intriguing, and it suggests that a person’s environment probably plays a bigger role than most divorced people acknowledge in surveys. One suggestive finding from this literature comes from a study of 82 middle-class newlyweds. The researchers asked the couples to keep seven-day diaries at three different points over a four-year period about their satisfaction with the relationship, their perception of relationship problems (for instance, problems with “showing affection” or “trust”), and the level of “external stress” that they were experiencing (such as the death of a friend or family member).

A couple’s environment probably plays a bigger role in shaping their marriage than most divorced people acknowledge in surveys.

They found that when wives (but not husbands) reported higher than average levels of external stress, they were less satisfied with the marriage. What is more surprising, though, is the exact way in which the stress affected the wives. As the authors write, “As wives’ external stress increased, they also tended to perceive more specific problems within the relationship.” And as external stress increased, wives were more likely to blame husbands for behaviors that they had overlooked or excused during low-stress periods.

The main point here is that stress talks. You can see the dynamic in the couple whose story I described above: whereas before marriage Leah may have been willing to excuse Gary’s unemployment because of his bipolar disorder, after marriage—when she said stress increased—she began to focus on it as a problem.

So what is really going on? Did Leah and Gary divorce because Gary didn’t contribute enough to their marriage or because of factors that are largely outside of their control, like his struggle with bipolar disorder? The answer, I think, is a little bit of both.

It’s probably true that ordinary people’s focus on non-environmental reasons for divorce at least partly reflects their sense of agency—the reality that we are not mere victims of fate. And research from psychologists like Martin Seligman supports this common intuition. In fact, Seligman criticizes a version of social science which he critiques for assuming that “individuals are no longer responsible for their actions, since the cause lies not in the person but in the situation.” Of course, as a good social scientist, Seligman acknowledges that the environment dramatically affects a person, and that some of us grow up in harsher social environments than others. But he believes that his own discipline, psychology, can do more to emphasize the character traits that empower people to learn from suffering in positive ways.

In thinking about how to reduce divorce, then, we need a two-pronged effort. Leaders should recognize how their decisions can contribute to making either a healthy environment for marriages or a toxic one. For instance, political leaders must ensure that poor and working-class people who struggle with mental illness have affordable and quality mental health care. Corporate leaders should strive to form companies in which all adult employees are paid a living wage. At the same time, as the success of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous demonstrates, there is also great power in appealing to people’s sense of agency, and identifying those character traits that enable people to experience suffering as a pathway to greater character—or in this case, the traits that enable couples to grow closer together, not farther apart, when life becomes stressful.