12/02/2010 05:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Certain Life Events Lead to Divorce

What do a heart attack, parent dying, turning 50 (or 60), job loss and a major car accident have in common? 

They are all what I call, "pivotal events."  Though life-altering in their own right, these events sometimes have a domino effect in that they can lead people to make other life-changing decisions -- divorce being one of the most common.

In over half of the cases I see, it is these types of events that my clients cite as what led to the divorce. Here's why:

Pivotal events often cause people to reflect on the past: After a pivotal event, someone questioning their marriage will reflect on choices they've previously made and may:

1) wonder if their reasons to get married were pure: (i.e. did they get married just to please their family or because they truly wanted to?)

2) wonder why they have stayed married (out of love or fear?)

3) question whether they ever really loved their spouse

4) feel doubt that they took the right path and may find themselves wishing they had stayed single, married someone else or divorced years earlier.

Pivotal events also cause people to reflect on the present: These people scrutinize themselves, their current job, spouse, home and friends.

Because the pivotal event often jolts people out of unconsciousness, they often become more honest about what's working and what's not working in the marriage. As a result of seeing things more clearly, continuing to live with a troubled or unfulfilling relationship that is unchangeable is what often leads people to file for dissolution.

One couple whose pivotal event occurred when their last child went off to college realized that, without their daughters to raise, they virtually had nothing in common. There was a faint memory of love for each other but they had grown so far apart that there was no glue holding them together any longer.

Pivotal events cause people to reflect on the future: Turning a particular age or having someone close to you die puts you face to face with your own mortality.

Questions arise such as, "If I only had one year to live, what would I do differently starting today?" and, "Is this the person I want to grow old and spend the rest of my life with?"

Recently, a man contacted me distraught after his wife of 22 years told him she no longer wanted to stay married to him. She had just received her last dose of chemotherapy for breast cancer and suspected that her cancer was probably a result of a backlog of toxins in her system from years of squelching her truth.

She realized she had been unconsciously going along with societal norms of becoming a wife and mother. If she had chosen a life of her own free will, her life would have looked quite different.

She did not regret having her kids but now that they were grown, she felt she could make decisions based on what she truly desired.

* In some cases, pivotal events simply clear the way for the divorce to occur.

One woman told me that the green light to leave her husband came after her father died and she received an inheritance. Having her own financial resources freed her from having to stay in her loveless marriage any longer.

The husband of a couple I work with lost his job which meant he no longer had to be "tied down" to the big house payment, live in an area of the country he hated and stay in his flagging marriage. If he had not been laid off, the choice to leave would never have occurred to him.

Proceed with Caution

The down side of pivotal events is that they can create avalanches if too much change occurs at once. This may take care of your need in the short term but it makes life harder on you and on everyone around you in the long term. Here are some things to consider before making big changes to your life:

1) Make no major decisions for 90 days after the pivotal event: Ideally, there should be no urgency in divorce (unless there is some type of abuse or danger of harm).

If the decision is truly the right decision now, it will be the right decision in three months. It's best to assess your choices from a more grounded place than in reaction to a major event.

2) Understand the impact on others: In addition to those around you being impacted by the pivotal event, they will likely be affected by your decision to leave the marriage as well. When making this serious decision, take this into account and do what you can to mitigate any damage the split may cause.

3)  Seek outside opinion before acting: Whether it's a trusted friend, or a paid professional, invariably, better decisions are made when you have a sounding board or support/guide. The more objective, the better.