The Decision to Divorce

The decision to terminate an unhappy marriage through obtaining a divorce is almost never an easy decision. It is usually reached only after other options and alternatives have been carefully considered and then rejected as non-viable solutions to the problems that have developed between the spouses. It is not likely that divorce will ever become matter-of-fact, nor that it will ever become painless or casual or nonchalant. It will probably always be an extremely painful experience for most people, as breaking close ties always is, even outside marriage. From this perspective, our coming to terms with divorce means only that we recognize its inevitability in many cases and try to mitigate some of the worst of its consequences.

First, we review the major theoretical orientations developed in the literature to account for the process through which the individual ultimately decides to seek a divorce. An analysis of the factors that were important in the decision of our respondents will then be presented.

In assessing the decision to divorce, one acknowledges that the relationship that exists between satisfaction and happiness in a marriage and the stability of that relationship is never a simple or direct one. As Lenthall 2 has noted, "happy" marriages often end in divorce and "unhappy" marriages often endure. Or, as Hicks and Platt 3 conclude after their comprehensive review of the marital satisfaction literature, the factors that make a marriage stable or unstable are much more complicated than just "being happy."

However, a relationship that is more rewarding to the individual than the comparison level does not have to be a stable relationship. While an existing relationship may be satisfactory on the comparison level criteria, an alternative relationship may become available that is even more attractive. In such circumstances, the "happy" relationship may become an unstable relationship. On the other hand, a relationship that does not measure up to the comparison level standard may nevertheless remain a stable relationship if only because the alternatives available are even less attractive to the individual involved.

Barriers to the dissolution of a relationship include feelings of obligation to each other, concerns about effects of divorce on the children, fears about group and community reactions, religious prohibitions, abstract moral values, concerns about financial costs associated with divorce, and so on. The implication, again, is that as attractions in a relationship decrease or as barriers to the dissolution of that relationship are eroded, the probability of divorce increases.

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