One old saw when the topic of frivolous divorce comes up is you never really know what is happening in someone else’s marriage. The premise being that even those apparently frivolous divorces are likely due to serious cause. Interestingly the people most adamant about this also tend to be the ones most in favor of no fault divorce. A very common tactic by proponents of no fault divorce is to change the subject to abuse, addiction, and infidelity. These are of course the very reasons they are arguing one shouldn’t have to claim in order to divorce. It is possible that they lack the logical capacity to understand why this is a red herring, or perhaps they would just rather try to win the argument than make logical sense.
Moreover, I wish I knew what these people’s secret was to avoiding divorcée TMI (Too Much Information). I must have a sign on my forehead saying “Tell me about your frivolous divorce”. A typical encounter with a new divorcée who I have never met but mistakenly share an elevator with goes something like the following:
New Divorcée: I’m glad you asked. My ex husband was such a loser… [Cornered, Dalrock goes into his happy place imagining a flock of ducks (all green-heads) setting their wings in preparation to land in his decoys. An unknown period of time elapses as the divorcée continues sharing all of her ex husband's faults and her complaints about each of the men she has dated since her divorce.] …and that is why I decided to take his grandfather’s war medals in the settlement.
Dalrock: Um, that’s very interesting maam. But all I asked was what floor you wanted me to push the button for.
As I’m sure is the case for many of this blog’s readers, I’ve learned to scope elevators very carefully for the telltale new divorcée haircut, crazy eyes, and inappropriate cleavage. Better to take the stairs than end up trapped in a steel box with a desperate cougar sharing TMI. No means no divorcées! As in, no I don’t want to hear about your divorce or your miserable dating life!
I’m sure there is a good deal of selection bias in effect here. Those women who tried to keep their marriages together in the face of true cause for divorce are almost guaranteed to be too dignified to air their dirty laundry with a complete stranger, especially one who is trying to pry the elevator doors apart between floors.
I do occasionally hear about men’s divorces as well, but usually this is either from someone I know fairly well or something I overhear a man telling to other men he knows well. Typically men don’t talk about the details of the marriage, but more about the injustices of the family court system:
Newly divorced man talking to his buddies: I can’t believe she took my work truck. It isn’t worth anything and I don’t believe her when she says she wants to drive it. She has both of our cars. Why not drive one of those? How am I supposed to pay all of that child support and alimony without my work truck? I need it for my business!
One of his buddies: Hang in there. She’ll get tired of driving a septic pumping truck and is bound to sell it back to you for a good price.
Anyway, I promised stats in the title and I’ll keep my promise. The data below is from the AARP survey and therefore has the problem of being more reflective of reasons for divorce later in life. However, it isn’t as problematic as you might think because 73% of the divorces being measured in the survey occurred when the person was in their 40s. I don’t have stats on when people divorce, but given the fact that 80% of divorced (and not remarried) women in the US are age 40 or over and 89% are 35 or older, I’m guessing divorce clusters around age 35 to 50. Here are the top seven reasons from figure four on page 24 of the report:
Note that they are actually combining the answers to three questions in this one chart. They first ask what was the most significant reason for the divorce, then they ask the question two more times for the next two reasons. If we are looking for cases of justified divorce, I think we only need to look at the answers to the first question. If someone listed “No obvious problems, simply fell out of love” as the primary reason and then abuse as a second or third reason, I’m not convinced on the abuse answer. It is also possible that someone answered abuse as the first reason, addiction as the second, and infidelity as the third. However in that case we would still only want to count them once as a non frivolous divorce so adding in all three answers doesn’t make sense there either.
Also, while the chart shortens the answer to “Abuse”, the choice presented to the person taking the survey was “Verbal, physical or emotional abuse” (see P 68 for full wording of all categories). This is problematic because everything is now considered abuse. In addition, there is a psychological motivation to want to give an answer which is not frivolous, so I would say this data at best allows us to place an upward bound on the percent of divorce which was for serious cause. If you add up the percentages for the first answer of abuse, infidelity, and addiction, you end up with a total of
Interestingly, the responses vary greatly between men and women surveyed, even though the question asks why the marriage ended, not what the other party did wrong:
Of all the reasons listed below, which was the most significant reason for your last divorce? (Reason may apply to you or to your spouse)
Here are the summary results (P 68) including how it broke down by men and women.
Note that men were much more likely to say it ended for no obvious reason (17% vs 7% for women), much less likely to say it was because of abuse (8% vs 23% for women), much less likely to say it was for addiction (6% vs 18%), and somewhat less likely to say it was because of infidelity (14% vs 17% for women).
Men and women’s answers also differed on who was to blame (full data on page 72):
Looking at the discrepancies above it seems pretty clear that there is quite a lot of rationalization (or outright lying) going on by both sexes. Men seem more willing to cop to being the cause, but both men and women are claiming the other was at fault for concrete causes more than is possible. Interestingly of the three bad behaviors above, women seem to be most comfortable admitting to committing abuse.
From the data I’ve seen, men and women are unfaithful at similar rates (with men slightly more likely to cheat). However, the women in the AARP survey who said infidelity was a cause of the divorce attributed the infidelity to their husbands 92% of the time! We can cross check this to some degree by comparing the answers to the question of who it was who fell in love with someone else:
Another question which jumped out because of the sheer improbability of the answers is the one on which spouse was gay (for the less than 1% who answered that homosexuality was one of the causes of the divorce):
Interestingly both sexes accused the other of being the gay one at roughly equal rates. However, men were more willing to admit they were gay while the women who didn’t claim their husband was gay simply refused to answer the question. Edit: I didn’t notice until after hitting “publish” that the actual numbers here were so small. One man admitted he was the gay one, and one woman refused to answer.
Note that the survey was conducted via web and the respondents were contacted by email and not by phone or face to face. Had this been a telephone or face to face survey one would typically expect even less willingness to be truthful about embarrassing questions. I think the discrepancies point out that divorce is a highly charged topic and that men and women both are very concerned with how their answers would look to others. This is something we should keep in mind whenever considering survey data like this.
One last result (and bit of rationalization) that I’ll share from the survey is who asked for the divorce (P75):
If you look only at the “me” responses, the results fit in the low end of the figures we commonly hear. 66% of the divorces were initiated by women, and this doesn’t seem entirely out of line with the figures on page 3 of this report (H/T Brendan). As I read the results in the table above, men and women were generally very clear about the answer when they were the initiators of the divorce; you can add up the “me” answers from men and women and it is almost exactly 100%
. However, those who didn’t initiate the divorce seem to have felt tempted to rationalize their answer and often times responded that it was mutual.
Note: If anyone has any other data sources on this question, please share them in the comments section.