Marriage isn’t Over Until it’s Over

Marriage and divorce

It’s commonly believed that when people enter the legal divorce process, they have come to accept that divorce is inevitable.

Even therapists and lawyers tend to assume that once divorce papers are filed, ambivalence about divorcing is over. The only task ahead is to help couples have a constructive end to their marriage.  Recent research shows that these assumptions are not founded.  Many divorcing people aren’t sure they want their marriage to end.

The first empirical study on attitudes toward reconciliation during the divorce process was conducted by Doherty, Peterson, and Willoughby (2011), who surveyed 2,484 divorcing parents. 

They found that about 25% of individual parents believed 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 divorce in a sample of 624 individual parents who had filed for divorce.

The study found that just two-thirds of participants were confident they wanted a divorce. The rest were ambivalent or did not want the divorce. Parents who were not certain about the divorce were highly interested in helping to save their marriage.

Remember that this study, like the others mentioned, was conducted with people well into the divorce process. Unpublished data from clients in initial consultation with lawyers has found that half of the initial clients were ambivalent about getting a divorce or didn’t want the divorce; only half were sure.

Other surveys of divorced people have found indicators of ambivalence about divorce. Several surveys reported that half of the 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 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. Discernment counseling helps couples feel confident in their decision or re-evaluate their decision. While short in nature as 1-5 sessions, this discernment process also helps couples understand what led them to their current place, see their role, and have happier relationships in the future (whether with their current spouse or a future partner).