Let’s start with the numbers and get that out of the way. Divorce is common, really common—in fact, according to the CDC, 2.9 out of every 1,000 people get divorced (as of 2017). In case that number seems lower than you thought, here’s some perspective, compare it to 6.9 per 1,000 people who get married.

A little silver lining is that while it’s clear that divorce rates increased from 1990 through 2008, particularly for women over the age of 35; the rate is now declining. In other words, young married couples are more likely to stay married than their Baby Boomer counterparts.

What’s Behind The Divorce Decline?

Dr. Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of six books about love and divorce including the renowned Anatomy of Love, has a theory about why.

“We’re marrying much later,” she explains. “Today, the average age for women to get married is 27 (about to be 28), and for men, it’s 29 (about to be 30). And all of my data…indicates that the later you marry, the less likely you are to divorce. I call it ‘slow love,’ because [millennials] have almost 10 years of practicing sex and love before they wed.”

When Do Most Divorces Happen?

But for those who do wind up divorced, there seems to be a magic number for when. According to Dr. Fisher, no matter where in the world you’re from or in what culture you’ve been raised, you’re most likely to get a divorce…drum roll…four years into your marriage.

Even more fascinating, she continues, is why. Our human brains have evolved to hone a drive for love and partnership that lasts just long enough to raise a single child through infancy.

Partnering allowed women to raise children and their male partners to provide for and protect them while the children was young.

After that? We are, as mammals, driven to procreate with more than one partner in order to have the strongest genetic legacy. “If you’re having children with two or three men rather than just one, you’re creating more genetic variety in your babies,” explains Dr. Fisher. In other words, for millions of years, some primitive form of divorce was probably an adaptive mechanism to create more genetic variety.

On a much smaller scale, in modern day American culture, one divorce attorney says that she’s found the average age for divorce to be more like five-to-eight years into the marriage. Bettina Hindin, matrimonial lawyer at Offit Kurman practicing for nearly 34 years, hypothesizes this is primarily because of unmet expectations. “In New York, we consider a long-term marriage to be 11 years long. Most marriages break up between the first and second years, or the fifth and eighth years.” Her analysis goes something like this: “In the first and second year, you bought into this marriage, bought into this dream, and it’s not what you wanted. That’s when the warning signs first go off,” Hindin explains. “During the fifth and eighth years, there’s the most change. You may have children, different jobs, maybe you’re not happy in your career. This is when life really hits you.”

What’s The Most Common Reason For Divorce?

No matter when it happens, she says, more often than not, it’s about disappointment. “People come into the marriage with unrealistic expectations of how it’s going to be, how they’re going to live, and when it comes down to everyday issues, money, children, jobs, it doesn’t happen the way you plan it.”

There are a few triggers that tend to start the ball rolling in Hindin’s experience, and almost all of them are rooted in money. But while finances are underlying in nearly every divorce situation, she explains, there are oftentimes other reasons for separations that play a role, too. “The major issues that I find [that predicate a divorce] are infidelity, drug/alcohol abuse or physical abuse, situations where people just can’t communicate anymore, or one party has control issues.”

A 2013 study supports Hindin’s experience, concluding that the most common reasons for divorce are:

  • lack of commitment to the partnership
  • infidelity
  • conflict or excessive arguing
  • domestic violence and substance abuse

And, of course, Fisher says, there’s situations when people quite simply fall out of love. “Romantic love is a very specific brain system, just like the fear system or the anger system or the startle system or the surprise system,” she explains. “It can become activated quite rapidly, and it can become less activated or deactivated almost instantly or gradually.”

But to understand that phenomenon, let’s back up to how people fall in love. “Romantic love is basically a drive. It is generated in a little factory near the very base of the brain called the ventral-tegmental area, and that’s where dopamine is made,” Dr Fisher explains. “Dopamine is sent to many brain regions when you’re madly in love, and that gives you the focus, motivation, optimism, and craving that’s so central to feeling romantic love.” When you look at it through this brain system lens, the logic follows that the same way you can stop being scared of something, you can stop being in love. It’s almost like a switch.

But it’s also important to note, Dr. Fisher continues, “that falling out of love doesn’t mean a marriage will end. It’s one of three brain systems that are associated with partnering. One is the sex drive; second is these feelings of intense romantic love; and the third is feelings of deep attachment to a partner.”

According to Fisher, it’s definitely possible to stay in love for a long time. But, people don’t actually expect to and you don’t have to in the same way. “They’re deeply attached, they still like the person’s sense of humor, they still like to make love to them, and there’s a comfortable relationship they’d like to keep,” explains Fisher.

The Psychological Impact Of Divorce

When a marriage does fall apart, there are real psychological issues that present themselves, explains Remy Dowd, LCSW and certified family and couples’ therapist in private practice. “When individuals plan to have a certain future and life with another person, it’s incredibly challenging when that trajectory suddenly shifts, and they have to adapt to a new way of living,” says Dowd.

Just the logistic alone are stressful; dividing assets, potentially moving, figuring out custody. Almost everyone who has been through this will also tell you there’s embarrassment and maybe even guilt or regret. People also think about their own situations instead of giving support, like you’ve been infected with the divorce virus, and they better not get too close, or they might catch it too. All of this ultimately feeds isolation.

The process can be particularly traumatic for those who have had attachment or depression issues in the past, says Dowd. “The significance and the process of separating from a loved one can trigger past traumas, issues around attachment, and deregulate emotions.” People with a history of addiction or maladaptive coping mechanisms are particularly at risk because of the intensity of emotions that may rise.

Are Certain Personalities Predisposed To Divorce?

Dr. Fisher highlights certain personality types and traits may actually predispose someone to getting divorced in the first place. According to her theory, there are four brain systems that are linked with personality traits: the dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen systems.

People who are very expressive of the dopamine system of the brain are [generally] risk taking, novelty seeking, curious, creative, spontaneous, energetic and mentally flexible. “I would predict that this kind of person would be more likely to be restless in a long relationship,” Dr. Fisher explains.

“[On the other hand] people who are very high on the serotonin system, they’re conventional; they’re traditional; they’re social norm-conforming. They follow the rules; they respect authority. They like schedules, rules, plans. They’re concrete rather than theoretical thinkers. They tend to be religious. And it would be my guess that these people would be less inclined to divorce.”

Life After Divorce

“There’s no set time frame or playbook for what this process looks like–everyone’s journey is different, and people need to remember to take care of themselves before they can move forward,” advises Dowd. “There’s a sadness to losing a loved one. It is important for both people to process their emotions and experiences not only to help make sense of the traumatic life event they just faced, but also to set themselves up for a more hopeful future.”

There are also lots of practical barriers to cross when getting a divorce, Hindin says, and those barriers can slow down the healing process. “It takes years to move from the depths of a divorce, because they don’t happen overnight. When you want a divorce, it’s a process in the court. It could take years. And when the marriage and the divorce is finally done, it takes time for people to rebound. Happiness does not come for a while after the divorce.”

Unfortunately, whether you instigate the divorce or are blindsided with papers, these challenges can affect you and make it a grueling process, says Dowd. “Those who didn’t initiate divorce often spend more time in denial, needing to take time accepting the reality of the situation as the other partner had more time to prepare for the news. Nevertheless, the process will be difficult for both partners. Either person may feel angry, guilty, hurt, doubt, feel as though promises weren’t kept or the other didn’t try hard enough.

The Five Stages Of Divorce

The stages of divorce are similar to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Here is how Dowd describes them:

  1. Denial: Denial is not accepting this as your reality, and it’s used as a defense mechanism, so people don’t feel too emotionally overwhelmed.
  2. Anger: Emotions run high in the next stage after suppressing them when in denial; people channel these emotions into hatred and blame during the anger stage.
  3. Bargaining: Individuals often look back at their relationship and replay moments in which they think could have impacted the outcome, which then leads to bargaining. This may involve one partner trying to work things out and promising to make changes or it could be a partner having doubts and questioning if he or she made the right decision. This is the attempt to pump the breaks and get your life back.
  4. Depression: Depression is when the reality of the situation sets in, and it’s the toughest and often longest stage.
  5. Acceptance: Lastly, acceptance is when you make peace with the situation and can find hope for the future. People may start to feel like their old selves again or a renewed sense of freedom and relief. Acceptance doesn’t mean all negative emotions are gone, but people will see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s important to remember that grief comes in waves and is not a linear journey.”

The Conscious Uncoupling Route

There are, of course, couples who try to circumvent these stages by going into it with a positive mindset—think Gwyneth Paltrow’s famous “conscious uncoupling.” This approach can be effective, says Dowd. “If done the way it’s intended, it strives to keep everyone’s well-being in mind, including both parents and children.

The main pillars of conscious uncoupling are mutual respect and self-awareness. The idea is to take the drama and antagonism out of the divorce process and to untangle their lives while keeping the peace.

Divorce And Kids

No matter how you go about it, divorce impacts children psychologically, physically, academically, and behaviorally, says Dowd. “Children will demonstrate the effect of divorce in various ways, and it’s crucial that they feel as though they have space to express their own emotions and concerns.”

For everyone involved, a support system is key to survive, and so are boundaries. “You can set the tone for how others can be supportive; you choose how much and what you want to share with others,” advises Dowd. “Listen to your gut, as it can also get confusing if you have too many opinions from others. Your loved ones will not judge you; they just want to show up for you and help you get through this trying time in your life as you would for them.”

Last Updated: Jun 8, 2020