Are Some Marriages Doomed From the Start?

Are Some Marriages Doomed From the Start?

Education, Income, Faith Play A Part

I saw it coming.” I could have predicted it.” I knew at the wedding that the marriage wouldn’t last.”News of divorce often generates comments about whether the break-up was in the cards before the vows were finished. But is it possible to predict divorce? Maybe.

There are some common denominators when it comes to divorce, according to research tabulated by the National Marriage Project, in its report The State of Our Unions. Some of the personal and social factors that may affect the potential for divorce are: Having an income lower than $25,000; having a child before marriage; coming from a divorced family; having no religious affiliation; and having no college education.

The factors are listed in order of effect, with income level seeming to have the greatest effect on whether a couple divorces. A couple who makes less than $25,000 has a 30 percent increased the chance of divorcing. For a couple who has a child before marriage, or within the first seven months, the chance of divorce increases 24 percent. If a couple is younger than 18 years old, the chance of divorce also increases 24 percent, as compared to those who marry at a later age. And those who come from divorced families are 14 percent more likely to divorce than those who do not.

There are clearly some divorce predictors, but they don’t have to mean that a happy marriage is an impossibility, said Robert Emery, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law.

Demographers have known for a long time that different background factors are associated with an increased risk of divorce,” Emery, who is also the author of The Truth About Children and Divorce, said. One of the most long-standing and accepted predictors, he said, is the fact the people who marry at a later age are less likely to divorce.


The demographic factors that predict divorce seem to show a chasm in marriage and family life when taken together, Emery said. They all kind of fit together,” he said. Those who are educated tend to be more affluent, and they are more likely to marry and stay married. Those with less education and lower incomes are more likely to have children outside of marriage. When analyzed as a whole, college education seems to form the divide, he said.

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The problem is that no one knows for sure why they all fit together in this way, he said. It’s something that everyone is trying to sort out,”Emery said. Is it an issue that better-educated, better-off people are recognizing the benefits of marriage? Is it that they have a better marriage and family options?Or is it nothing to do with that? People are more able to put things off for tomorrow, more able to go to college, save, invest in a marriage like they would an education.”

Because the reasons behind why these demographic factors are predictors of divorce remain unanswered, he said, he cautions against using them to foretell the future of a relationship. Instead, determine the health of a relationship by looking carefully at the partners, he said. He said he often jokes that arranging marriages might be more effective because the couples could be joined together based on long-term stability instead of short-term attraction.

So instead of focusing too deeply on the demographic factors, couples should try to analyze in an unbiased way what brings them together, he said. I guess the question is: Would you arrange this marriage for yourself?” Emery said.


While the demographic factors on the list make marriage more difficult, they are not the kinds of issues that will mean the end to a marriage, said Jay P. Granat, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New Jersey. He said he often sees young couples who had a child before marriage or very early in the marriage, and who are struggling in their relationship. He said he asks those couples one of the most difficult questions: Would you have married if you were not having a child? That helps him understand the kinds of stresses they are trying to resolve.

Added to that, he said, is the fact that many of these couples are young and have not matured. They may not have reached a level of stability in their occupations or in their finances, and they are trying to adjust to financial strains of raising a child. It’s a stressful situation from the start, he said.

Those stressors can be resolved, he said. However, there are some issues that may automatically mean the end of a relationship. Things like: drug or alcohol abuse, mental illness, lying, out-of-control gambling, physical or emotional abuse and infidelity. Those tend to be big hurdles for a relationship,” Granat said. I sometimes approximate those as deal breakers.”

Beyond those factors, Granat said, there are ways to offset some of the difficulties that are commonly present failing relationships. If both partners are willing to work on improving the relationship, then there is a chance at repairing it.

I think you have to go over the options in terms of how they feel: to stay, to leave, to see if they can learn about each other and grow into this,”Granat said. He said that some couples, especially those who marry young, need education about parenting and family life. What’s common is that they have poor communication skills, and they have not been in the situation where they have to compromise,”Granat said. Those are the things they need to learn about.”


However, one therapist said that these common demographic factors ““ income, early childbearing, coming from a divorced family, no college education ““ don’t seem to play a part in the lives of the couples who come to her for help.
Barbara Fontana, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and Imago therapist in Long Island, said that the fact that she doesn’t see it doesn’t necessarily mean that the common factors don’t contribute to divorce.

I am on the north shore of Long Island., so it’s a very white, middle-class area. Not diverse. I don’t see that at all, but I think I have a very narrow sample,” Fontana said. Instead, she said that the amount of time married seems to play a part in the health of the marriage. There seem to be two times when there is an increase in divorce ““ around seven years, and when the kids are grown,” Fontana said. There are two blips, or peaks, that I see.”

Added to that, she said, is a new blip.”She is hearing about more couples who are divorcing early, within a year or two of the wedding. And that is new,” Fontana said. I think that comes from people not understanding that marriage is hard work. And when they see that it is hard work, they give up. And I think that’s sad.”


If there are commonalities to divorcing couples, might there be common personality traits? Brian D’Onofrio, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University thinks so.He conducted research on twins to understand whether genetic factors might play a part in divorce. He found that issues like depression and addiction, which can be genetically predisposed, may be issues that are more likely to cause divorce.

He said there are no specific divorce genes.”He researches personality traits that might lead to divorce. He looks at twins to understand the differences between genetic and environmental effects. When we talk about genetic factors on any complex behaviors, we are talking about how genetic factors affect personality factors or behaviors that then go on to affect divorce,” D’Onofrio said.

He said it has long been accepted that one particular personality trait makes it more likely for one to experience divorce: people who respond negatively to life events. We’ve known from numerous psychological and sociological studies that people who are more likely to respond to stressful events negatively, that they are more likely to get divorced,” D’Onofrio said.

Which means that people who worry a lot, get stressed out quickly and easily, get overly upset when bad things happen, are more likely to have failed relationships, he said. That trait seems to have a strong bearing on how partners relate to each other, he said.

In many of these situations, he said, the key to trying to save the relationship is finding some kind of help or treatment. We always encourage people who are going through difficult times in their marriage from marital counseling,”D’Onofrio said. Sometimes I think people wait too long to get the help that they need.”

Michele Bush Kimball has a Ph.D. in mass communication with a specialization in media law. She has spent almost 15 years in the field of journalism, and she teaches at American University in Washington, D.C.

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