A Marriage Isn’t Over Until Its Over: Research On Divorce Ambivalence

It’s commonly believed that when people enter the legal divorce process, they have come to accept the reality that divorce is inevitable.  Even therapists and lawyers tend to assume that once divorce papers are filed, ambivalence about divorcing is over and the only task ahead is to help couples have a constructive end to their marriage.  Recent research shows that these assumptions are not founded.  In fact, many divorcing people aren’t sure they want their marriage has to end.

The first empirical study on attitudes towards reconciliation during the divorce process was conducted by Doherty, Peterson and Willoughby (2011), who surveyed a sample of 2,484 divorcing parents.  They found that about 25% of individual parents indicated a belief that their marriage could still be saved, and about 30% indicated an interest in reconciliation services.  That study was replicated by Hawkins, Willoughby and Doherty (2012) who found similar levels of belief that the marriage could be saved (26%) as well as interest in reconciliation services (33%).

A third study (Doherty, Harris, and Wilde, in press) asked about specific attitudes towards the divorce in a sample of 624 individual parents who had filed for divorce.  The study found that just two-thirds of participants were certain they wanted the divorce.  The rest were ambivalent or did not want the divorce.  Parents who were not certain about the divorce were highly interested in help to save their marriage.  Keep in mind that this study, like the other ones mentioned, were conducted with people who were well into the divorce process. Unpublished data from clients in initial consultation with lawyers has found that half of initial clients were ambivalent about getting divorce or didn’t want the divorce; only half were certain.

Other surveys of divorced people have found indicators of ambivalence about divorce. Several surveys reported that half of divorced individuals wished they had worked harder to overcome their marital differences and avoid their divorce (see Hawkins & Fackrell, 2009, for a summary). Hetherington and Kelley (2002) reported that in 75% of divorced couples at least one partner had regrets about the decision to divorce one year after the breakup.  In a qualitative study, Knox and Corte (2007) found striking levels of rethinking among currently separated spouses.  They reported: “Clearly, one effect of involvement in the process of separation was a re-evaluation of the desirability of initiating a separation to the degree that they would alert others contemplating separation/divorce to rethink their situation and to attempt reconciliation” (p. 79).

In summary, research now shows that divorce ambivalence is widespread among people who have entered the divorce process.  It’s not over just because the legal divorce process has started.

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