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

Couples Blog

A Marriage Isn’t Over Until It’s 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 Unpublished data from clients in initial consultation with lawyers has found that half of initial clients were ambivalent about getting divorce or didn’t want the divorce;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.

What Defines Cheating?

Couples can get into muddy waters when it comes to one person feeling really “off” about their spouse’s “friendship” with someone who could become a romantic partner. This can lead to a lot of fights about what is cheating. Does it have to involve physical contact? These debates don’t actually sooth anyone: the partner who feels there is an inappropriate relationship stays upset and the partner in the other relationship feels judged and defensive.

What to do? Let’s define an emotional affair.

There are a few parts of it here.

The first is obvious. It’s a one to one personal relationship with somebody who could become a romantic partner. Even if you would never “do” anything, it is in the realm of possibility for you, or that person, to develop strong feelings.

Secondly, there is, if you’re honest with yourself, some sexual charge to the relationship. Even though it’s not a primarily sexual relationship, you’re attracted and enjoy that attraction. There’s some sort of sexual charge, and if you let yourself dwell on it, that charge could grow.

The third part is the clincher: you don’t tell your spouse about what’s going on in the other relationship. You don’t go home and tell your spouse what you and the other person shared, or you edit it carefully. If you’re the one being accused, now is the time to come clean. Share everything, including the reason you didn’t tell your spouse about this person.

If you’re in such a relationship and you’re reading this going “Uh oh,” coming to realize that a friendship is probably going down a bad path, now is the time to cool down the friendship. You don’t have to be dramatic about it. There are plenty of adult friendships where “life” gets in the way and things peter out. This should be such a relationship.

If you are the accuser and your spouse is defensive and continues to argue they are in the right and you are simply being paranoid, it may be worthwhile to seek some marriage counseling together. There is something bigger going on beyond the possible emotional affair. You and your spouse have trust issues. You are feeling really vulnerable and unsafe, and your spouse is feeling defensive and treated like an untrustworthy teenager. If your conflict about the other person endures, there are issues that a professional therapist an help you sort out.

If you are being suspected of an emotional affair and you are convinced it’s not so (maybe your spouse has been jealous of everyone of the opposite sex you’ve worked with), it’s in your best interest to help your spouse feel more confident, and this may require a therapist’s help. Your spouse may being feeling vulnerable for reasons that need to be sorted out, and you may be doing other things that contribute to trust issues in your marriage.

Either way, couples therapy can help prevent more damage in the future. It’s not enough to just say “trust me-there’s no issue,” when you spouse is torn up about another relationship.

And if one of you is uncertain about staying in the marriage, our store with specific material for you, or a local Discernment Counselor may be your next best step.