Despite conventional wisdom that the divorce rate is still increasing, the fact of the matter is that the divorce rate in the United States is the lowest it has been since it peaked in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, couples getting married today have about a 40-45% chance of getting divorced. These figures do not include couples who remain married but who have high conflict relationships that are emotionally harmful to both partners and their children and detrimental to job performance; as well as the marriages where one or both partners have "fallen out of love" and have low levels of positive connections (e.g., fun, friendship, sex).
Many factors influence risk for divorce. For example, sociological studies show that couples with higher levels of education are less likely to divorce. In addition, research by Drs. Galena Rhoades, Scott Stanley and myself at the University of Denver's Center for Marital and Family Studies shows that couples who live together without a commitment to marry, and then marry are at higher risk for divorce than couples who do not live together at all, or live together after engagement.
The social-economic costs of serious relationship distress, destructive relationship conflict, and divorce are enormous, with some estimates reaching billions of dollars a year (given there are close to 1 million divorces a year, if one assumes that each divorce costs an average of $1000 per divorce that estimate comes to 1 billion dollars). Costs include increased health care expenditures for both children and adults, decreased educational attainment for children, declines in economic status (particularly for woman and children), eroded professional performance, legal costs including stress on our legal system.
How can we help couples to have healthier and happier marriages? Early in my work I was interested in "divorce prevention." Since then we have learned that there are at times good divorces where the interests of at least one partner is best served by termination of the marriage. For example, in cases of infidelity (which researchers are now calling extra-marital involvement, partially to take into account non-sexual relationships where partners are emotionally involved with another and lying about the other relationship) and aggression (intimate partner violence), divorce may be viewed as a positive life decision for one of the involved partners.
When marital problems arise, couples therapy is one option that many people think about. However most couples marry and divorce without seeking marital therapy from a couples therapist, and those that do often wait too long and do not see a therapist trained in empirically supported interventions. Access to such services should be an important priority for the nation and careful consideration should be given to expanding health insurance plans to include coverage for empirically based services for treating relationship distress.
In the most successful cases of couples therapy, partners that work through substantial issues are happier than before therapy, yet generally do not reach the level of happiness they had before problems developed. Many couples at the end of therapy have said to me, "Howard, thanks, and I wish I had seen you or taken one of your workshops 20 years ago, when we young, happy, and in love."
However couples therapy is only part of the answer to the question of how to increase relationship health. The most important answer is in one word: Education.
Relationship education includes classes, workshops, and online learning where partners can learn the skills and principles that over 30 years of research has shown to be associated with relationship happiness. In controlled clinical trials, couples who complete a relationship education program communicate better, handle conflicts and negative emotions more constructively, have lower risk of divorce and higher levels of relationship happiness.
My message to couples: Don't wait until things get really nasty or until you have lost that loving feeling. Even if you are at the end of your rope, it's still not too late. Access to pre-marital and early interventions have been expanded in the past five years and there is federal funding through the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) for relationship education services, particularly for lower income families. Chances are high that couples can find a class close to home and learn skills to use now and in the future.
If you want to see where your relationship is at take the relationship quiz at www.loveyourrelationship.com and get immediate feedback. You can also contact us at the website to find a class in your area or get other research-based relationship resources.
Click here for more information on the statistics presented above and related statistics on marriage and divorce.