It’s commonly believed that once a couple enters the legal divorce process, they have accepted the reality that divorce is inevitable. Even therapists and lawyers tend to assume that once divorce papers are filed, any divorce ambivalence has been resolved and the primary task is to facilitate a constructive end to the marriage.
However, recent research shows these assumptions are wrong. In fact, many divorcing people aren’t sure they want their marriage 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. That 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 showed they were highly interested in getting help to save their marriage.
These studies were all conducted with people who were well into the divorce process. Unpublished data from clients in initial consultation with lawyers shows half of initial clients were ambivalent about getting divorced or didn’t want the divorce; only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, current research paints a complex picture: divorce uncertainty is widespread, even after couples have filed divorce papers. It’s not over just because the legal divorce process has started.
If you are uncertain about the future of your marriage, feel free to connect with me. As a Certified Discernment Counselor, I can help you and your spouse gain clarity on a path forward.