Are the problems that lead to divorce present from the start?

Some couples may be predisposed to divorce and also affected by emerging problems, according to a 2015 study.

The study, published in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, compared the two current theories of relationship deterioration—enduring dynamics (problems are generally present from the beginning of a relationship) and emergent distress (problems emerge and get worse as the relationship goes on.  It is the first of its kind to follow alongside the relationships as they deteriorate instead of solely surveying couples after divorce occurs.

“No study has yet combined data obtained from the same individuals before and after their divorce to examine how problems develop over time in marriages that dissolve,” said Hannah C. Williamson, principal investigator and corresponding author of the study.

According to Williamson, understanding the reasons behind relationship deterioration will help experts to develop better programs to help struggling couples.

“Understanding why couples end their marriage is essential to interventions that aim to prevent divorce,” she continued.

The team followed 431 couples for four years, surveying them up to five times throughout the course of the study. By the end of the study, 55 couples had divorced, and data was collected from 40 divorced individuals (ten divorced couples and 20 individuals).

The issues wives most commonly reported as eventually leading to divorce were “communication,” “willingness to work on the relationship,” “trust,” “jealousy/infidelity,” and “moods and tempers.”

For husbands, the most commonly reported problems were “moods and tempers,” “communication,” “trust,” “quality of time spent together,” “making decisions/solving problems” and “management of money.”

The data support both theories of deteriorating relationships.  On average, husbands only initially identified 1 of 13 problems that eventually led to their divorce.  Wives, on the other hand, identified 7 of 13 problems from the beginning, confirming the commonly held theory that women tend to be more aware of problems in their relationships than men.

“Men are commonly thought of as less aware of their relationship than women, and indeed women are more likely than men to recognize that their relationship is in trouble and seek therapy,” said Williamson.

After their relationships ended, however, men reported that an average of 7.8 problems contributed to their divorce, while women reported an average of 10.7 problems.  These data indicate that some problems do in fact emerge over the course of the relationship.

These seemingly conflicting results point to the possibility that there is truth in both theories—couples may have general issues at the beginning of their relationship, while specific issues may enter in later and contribute to the eventual breakdown of the relationship.

“The development of global dissatisfaction and specific problems may take on different forms: marriages that will end in divorce may start out less happy and this deficit in happiness may lead to the development of more specific relationship problems,” said Williamson.