Divorce: What Went Wrong?
by Dr. Edward A. Dreyfus
The "D-Word" strikes at the heart of all
married couples. Prenuptial agreements--agreements made even before marriage--all have
provisions for what happens in the event of a divorce. Recent statistics suggest that 50%
of all marriages in the United States will end in divorce. In Southern California the
divorce rate is purported to be even higher, somewhere in the neighborhood of 60-75%,
depending on which study one reads. In this article I will be exploring some of the
reasons that people divorce, some of the consequences of divorce, ways to prevent divorce,
and, when all else fails, approaches to divorce that can be less stressful to all of the
The institution of marriage has changed dramatically over the past 100 years. Many factors
played a part in this evolution. In the 1890s marriage was often a matter of convenience.
Roles for men and women were clearly defined; each knew what was expected of them. Men
were expected to work, with their primary responsibility being the family provider. Women
were to take care of the home and bear children for whom they would then be the caretaker.
Marriages were for the purpose of raising a family-breeding children who would grow up to
help with the chores, work the fields, or take over the family business.
With the industrial revolution, the Second World War, and finally the technological
revolution, much of this changed. Each of these revolutions provided greater leisure time,
greater freedom from chores, and a reduction in the need for progeny to be junior
workers-in the field or in the home. Thus families had fewer children. W.W.II created a
need for women to enter the work force. And when the war was over, they did not want to
return to the home. Two-income families became the norm. Today women work for the same
reasons men work, not just to provide a second income. They have their own careers,
interests, and activities equal to men.
The family changed from "Dad wears the pants in the family" to Mom and Dad are
partners in the business of family. The expectations men and women have of one another and
subsequently of marriage have changed. Couples expect more of one another and from their
marriage. With increased information, leisure time, mobility, and affluence people have
more time to learn about themselves and to experience various life styles. They have more
contact with how other people live. They also have increased opportunity to learn about
themselves. In less affluent times, when roles were clearly defined along gender lines,
peoples' self-concept remained static. Today, however, after being continuously bombarded
with information and the possibility of change, the concept of self has become more
When two people are married and over a period of years at least one person, if not both,
undergoes a significant change in self-concept, the marriage will also change. The selves
that married are no longer the same. If interests, goals, values change along with a
changing self, you have a different dynamic set up between the two persons. In some cases
this dynamic is such that the marriage no longer seems viable. When we combine this change
with the awareness that we will be living longer, it appears more probable that people
will seek a second or third partner with whom they feel more compatible.
It is no longer sufficient for a man simply to be a terrific provider and for a woman to
be an outstanding homemaker. People expect more. Men and women want intimacy, romance,
affection, understanding, commonality of interests, conversation, common values, and
exciting sex, to mention a few of the more common requirements. They want an equal
partnership with one another, where both parties participate equally in all of the
decisions pertaining to the home and to child-rearing, regardless of who is earning more
Increased longevity, increased affluence, and increased opportunity for personal growth,
when combined with significantly changing expectations regarding marriage, suggest that
people must learn new or different ways of relating to one another if their marriage is
going to survive. When this is not possible, either for lack of desire, capacity, or
interest on the part of one or both parties, divorce becomes an option.
A magazine article I recently read stated that people, particularly women, who are
currently age 65 are expected to live until 85. Younger people are expected to live
longer, into their 90s. More and more people are reaching the age of 100 and beyond. It is
becoming commonplace for people to have more than one career in a lifetime. After all, a
youngster of 65 still has another 20 or more years in which to begin a new career. Young
people today no longer think about a career that they will be in for the rest of their
life; they think more about their "first" career, fully expecting a second or
perhaps third career to follow.
These same young people are thinking about marriage in a similar vein. Many of them
recognize that the concept of marriage "until death do us part" is more a
figurative use of the phrase than a literal use. People currently in their 40s who married
while in their 20s are realizing that to have one partner for a lifetime may be highly
improbable. When you think about it, it is rather a minor miracle that two people, from
different backgrounds, with different histories, and different needs, can find each other
and live together for 20 or 30 years. But to live together for 50, 60, or 70 years...! The
likelihood of two people growing in similar directions and similar paces would appear to
be small. People in their 20s have different values, expectations, needs, and interests
than they may have when in their 40s. And people in their 40s may be different than those
in their 60s. Priorities and goals change. People change. As friends may grow apart as
people grow and change, so may spouses.
Yet, in spite of the odds, many people are able to make marriage at least tolerable for
many decades. Some people grow together, while others grow separately but are sufficiently
satisfied with one another to remain together.
Negotiation and Compromise
Contemporary marriages have to rely upon different models than in previous generations.
The metamorphosis of marriage has been underway since the 1950s. The models represented by
"Father Knows Best," "I Love Lucy," and "Leave It To
Beaver," where the man was the provider and the woman was the housewife, was the
model of the day. In the 1980s we began to see a different model of marriage as
represented by "The Cosby Show," where two professional people were married and
raising a family.
In previous generations a woman was taught to accommodate-to put aside her needs in favor
of the needs of the man. She was to accommodate her needs to him. This model of marriage
reduced women to the status of wife, while elevating men to the status of husband. The
power lay with the husband.
In a marriage of equals, constant accommodation on the part of one person will eventually
cause resentment and subsequently conflict. Compromise and negotiation, on the other hand,
recognizes the equality of both parties as they seek an equitable and mutually satisfying
solution to a problem. In compromise neither party may get exactly what they want at any
given time. In these marriages preservation and enhancement of the relationship is more
important than getting what one wants. Couples must learn to let go the argument in the
service of maintaining an intimate connection. When being right and winning becomes more
important than the relationship, the marriage will be in trouble.
One of the most important aspects of contemporary marriage is learning how to negotiate. A
successful marriage today has more in common with business negotiations than with
"Father Knows Best." The better able a couple is in learning the skills of
negotiation, the less conflict they will experience and the greater their satisfaction.
When either party is more interested in winning, not able or not willing to negotiate, and
has poor communication skills, the more likely they will have the kinds of difficulties
that will lead them to consider divorce.
Divorce: Failure or Change
Many people inappropriately believe that divorce means that they have failed. Not that the
marriage failed, but that they personally failed-hence they are a failure. It is as though
they believe that when people marry it is supposed to last forever, as though it were
preordained; thus, if the marriage ends they must have done something wrong to make it
As we can see from the forgoing analysis, many factors contribute to the decision to
divorce. No one takes the issue of divorce lightly. Endings, however, are a part of life.
Everything has a life expectancy. People are finite, imperfect beings, living in an
imperfect, constantly evolving, constantly changing world.
Change is the only constant. Hence, marriage is constantly evolving and imperfect.
Sometimes two people are able to grow, change, and evolve in similar directions, sometimes
not. Sometimes our expectations remain constant, more often they change. Sometimes our
expectations are the same as our partners, and sometimes not. The longer we live, the more
possibility for change to be in different directions. "'Til death do us part" is
more likely when we live to be 50 than when we live to be 100.
All too often divorcing couples do so in an atmosphere of hostility. They forget that they
once were in love with one another. This is indeed unfortunate. Divorce ranks second only
to death of a loved one as the most stressful of life's experiences. The stress in
inevitable. But the strife is not.
Usually there are other variables at play that lead to the acrimony accompanying divorce.
Frequently the acrimony covers pain and hurt. This is true regardless of who feels like
the injured party. Pain is integral to loss. In a divorce there are many losses. The loss
of the fantasy of marriage and the magic of the relationship, the loss of the friendship,
the loss of friends, a lifestyle, a home, familiarity, children, loss of love, identity,
to name but a few of the losses.
When we are angry we do not have to experience the hurt and the loss. We can cover the
pain with anger, at least temporarily. Sometimes our anger is directed toward the other
person for not being all that we wanted them to be or expected them to be. Sometimes we
are angry because they other person did not change; we think, "if only s/he would
change then we would not have to divorce."
Sometimes we feel angry because we have been victimized by our spouse. We feel like the
injured party and we want to fight back. We want to hurt the other person in the same way
we feel hurt. So what do we do? We hire a lawyer to help us get back at our spouse. We
want to hurt our spouse while we are protecting ourselves.
Sometimes we are angry with ourselves for not being a better spouse, for not knowing
better, for not paying attention, for not being all that we might have been. Rather than
get angry with ourselves, we get angry with our spouse. Sometimes we fight about who gets
the dog or the dishes so we can feel empowered.
Sometimes we get depressed, too. We blame ourselves, we feel guilty. We are ashamed. So we
hire a lawyer to help us give everything to our spouse in order to make amends for real or
imagined hurts that we have inflicted.
Divorce Counseling and Divorce Mediation
One of the reasons that divorce often takes as long as it does is because many issues just
mentioned are being acted out during the course of the dissolution. An alternative to the
expensive, stressful, and time-consuming approach of a litigated, hotly contested divorce
is to try either divorce counseling and/or divorce mediation.
Divorce counseling, when conducted by a licensed mental health practitioner who
specializes in working with divorcing couples, can help the couple sort out the emotional
from the practical issues of the divorce. As I pointed out earlier, anger over practical
issues such as property is usually a product of lingering resentment with regard to the
relationship, not the property itself. Once the couple can resolve or at least clarify the
cause of the anger, reasonable negotiations can occur. (Unfortunately, many couples have
to learn the hard way that the court will, more often than not, come to the same
conclusion regarding the property that the couple could have come to had they not been so
Divorce counseling is concerned with helping the couple gain some sense of closure
regarding their relationship. It can help the parties grieve their loss preparing them to
move into the future, perhaps not as friends, but at least not as enemies.
Divorce mediation is the healthy alternative to a litigated divorce. The focus of a
mediated divorce is on reaching an equitable solution to such issues as spousal support,
property division, child custody, visitation, etc. The couple meets with a mediator (or in
my practice a mediation team consisting of a lawyer and a psychologist) to resolve each
and every item. Without assessing blame or fault, the mediator helps the divorcing parties
develop alternative solutions for addressing their specific areas of conflict.
By choosing mediation, the parties talk to each other, rather than through their
attorneys. This direct communication resolves conflicts in less time and is less costly
than traditional litigation. When children are involved in a dispute, the mediation
process encourages parents to focus on their children's best interests and to maintain a
relationship with their children while the parties design a parenting plan.
Each party has control in a mutual, decision-making process. Mutual expression of
perceptions, values and emotions are allowed, thereby reducing damage to important family
relationships. This enables the parties to tailor a personalized agreement which resolves
their individual and unique concerns and reflects the best interests of their children.
An important goal for successful mediation is reaching a fair agreement. The parties
decide what is fair, not the attorneys and not a judge.
About the Author:
Dr. Edward A. Dreyfus is in private practice in Santa
Monica, California where he practices as a clinical psychologist, divorce mediator and
life coach. He offers individual and group psychotherapy as well as couples therapy and
sex therapy. In his coaching practice he works with individuals seeking to enhance and
balance their professional, career and personal life.
Dr. Dreyfus is a Licensed Psychologist and a Licensed Marriage, Family, & Child
Therapist. He is also a Certified Sex Therapist of the American Association of Sex
Educators, Counselors and Therapists. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological
Association, a Diplomate and Fellow of the American Board of Sexology, a Fellow of the
Academy of Clinical Sexologists, a Diplomate in Professional Psychotherapy of the
International Academy of Behavioral Medicine, Counseling, and Psychotherapy, Inc., and a
Diplomate of the American College of Forensic Examiners. Dr. Dreyfus is a Registrant in
the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology and is a Registrant in the
National Register of Certified Group Psychotherapists.
In 1996, he was the recipient of the prestigious Distinguished Psychologist Award given by
the Los Angeles County Psychological Association. Dr. Dreyfus has written three books,
several book chapters, over two dozen professional articles, and has presented at many
Purchase Dr. Dreyfus' book, Someone Right
Visit his website at http://www.docdreyfus.com.