Whether you’re just curious or thinking of your own marital challenges, here’s a look at what research has to say about the most common causes of divorce.
Social scientists and other scholars have long studied the issue of what leads to divorce. Some have looked at easily measured factors that make divorce more likely, such as the age when people get married. But other researchers have gone right to the source: asking divorced people why they think their marriages ended.
We compared the results from several of the best studies (see details below), compiled a list of the top eight causes of divorce, and ranked them according to how often study participants said those issues were an important reason their marriage ended.
Before we get to the list, it's important to point out the obvious: There's usually more than one reason a couple gets divorced (which is why percentages for answers add up to more than 100%), and those reasons are often intertwined. For example, people are more likely to have extramarital affairs when they're experiencing other problems in their marriage, and communication problems exacerbate issues like money disputes. Another complicating factor that won't surprise you is that couples often disagree about what caused their breakup.
Still, it can be helpful to learn what other people say about why their marriages ended, with the benefit of hindsight. And if you're hoping to avoid the same outcome, it can help to recognize when signs of these problems show up in your own marriage.
1. Lack of Commitment
In several studies that asked people to choose from a list of important reasons for their divorce, lack of commitment came out at the top of the list. (As many as 85% of participants in one study gave this answer.) Interestingly enough, another study showed lack of commitment was also the reason couples were most likely to agree on—although one spouse usually blamed the other for not working harder to save the marriage.
Lack of commitment can seem vague and hard to prove (or disprove), especially to the person who's being blamed for the problem. The outward signs are often related to other reasons for divorce, like extramarital affairs, not being willing to talk about the relationship, and not working toward shared financial goals. That's probably why so many people point to a lack of commitment as a significant cause of divorce—because they see it as the issue underlying a range of more obvious problems.
2. Incompatibility and Growing Apart
All those lawmakers who settled on "irreconcilable differences" as the basic ground for no-fault divorce were on to something. When asked why their marriages ended, a significant proportion of divorced people answer with some variation of "we grew apart," "we drifted apart," or "we were just incompatible" (up to 55% in one study). This concept of incompatibility could include other divorce reasons that came up in various studies, such as:
- a lack of shared values
- marrying too young (which makes growing apart more likely)
- sexual difficulties, and
- religious differences.
Of course, many couples live with and even relish their differences. But most successful marriages are based on a core of shared (or at least overlapping) interests, priorities, and values. Outward signs of incompatibility often go hand in hand with other common reasons for divorce—especially poor communication, which is next on the list.
3. Communication Problems
Around 50% of participants in various studies cited reasons for divorce that had to do with poor communication, like arguing too much and not being able to talk to each other. Here again, communication problems can be the cause of other reasons people give for divorce, such as conflict over money and family responsibilities.
It's not hard to recognize when you're arguing all the time with your spouse. But even if the fights aren't that frequent or nasty, keep an eye out for repeated arguments about the same thing or disagreements that never really get resolved. That can be a sign that you need help learning how to communicate with each other more effectively, perhaps through couple's therapy.
4. Extramarital Affairs
Although infidelity (or adultery) came up in every study we reviewed, its frequency among the reasons given for divorce varied from about 20% in one study to 60% in others.
This wide range could be a reflection of the fact that at least some divorced people consider an affair as just the last straw after a string of other marital problems. Those other problems might be the reason someone goes outside the marriage for intimacy, excitement, or distraction—or even as an unconscious way of provoking the other spouse into calling an end to the marriage.
5. Financial Incompatibility: Money Disagreements
In different studies, about 40% of people said that financial problems—in particular, complaints about how their ex-spouse handled money—were a major reason they got divorced. Fights over money are often referred to as "financial incompatibility," because they usually stem from differences in priorities and values around financial decisions.
Signs that you and your spouse are financially incompatible include when:
- one of you keeps secrets or even outright lies about purchases or other financial decisions (like making investments or withdrawing money from savings)
- one of you doesn't consult the other before making large purchases or taking other steps that affect your joint finances
- you can't talk regularly (and calmly) about your finances
- the two of you can't or won't set joint financial goals (like budgeting and saving to buy a house, have kids, or build a retirement nest egg), and
- you set financial goals together but one of you keeps subverting them.
Not surprisingly, research has shown that couples with lower incomes are more likely to cite financial incompatibility as a major reason for getting divorced. When there's less to go around—and higher stress about being able to pay bills—there's likely to be more fighting over money issues. And of course, no matter a couple's income level, fights about money and property continue during the divorce itself.
6. Substance Abuse
In various studies, between 10% and 35% of people said they divorced because of their spouse's drinking or drug problems.
There are many signs that your spouse could have a substance use disorder, including:
- changes in sleep, appetite, and hygiene
- secretive behavior
- sudden mood swings
- paranoia or other personality changes
- neglecting work or family responsibilities
- abandoning old friends or activities
- an unexplained need for extra money, and
- difficulties with attention or memory.
(Learn how alcohol and drug use affects custody decisions in divorce.)
7. Domestic Abuse
Between 15% and 25% of participants in various studies listed domestic violence as an important reason for divorce. And in a study focusing on older divorced couples, more than a third of participants listed verbal, emotional, or physical abuse as one of the three main reasons for their divorce.
Women and men tend to have very different views of domestic abuse as a cause of divorce. In one national study, 42% of women—but only 9% of men—cited domestic violence as an important reason their marriage ended. That could be a reflection of the fact that women are much more likely than men to suffer intimate partner abuse, and that victims of abuse are more likely than abusers to see the behavior as the cause of divorce.
Learn about the effect of spousal abuse on divorce, the warning signs of relationship abuse and how to protect yourself when leaving an abusive relationship.
8. Conflicts Over Family Responsibilities
When some studies asked about the important reasons for divorce, about 20% of participants cited conflicts in their marriage over:
- how to raise their kids
- child care responsibilities, and/or
- other family and household obligations.
It's worth noting that least one study showed women were significantly more likely than men to cite these disputes as an important cause of their divorce. (In older studies that gave participants a checklist of reasons, the lists seldom included conflicts over family responsibilities—perhaps because many social scientists overlooked or made assumptions about gender roles in marriages between men and women.)
Some Divorce Reasons Matter More Than Others
As we've noted, this list of top divorce reasons is based on our review of a number of research studies. It accounts for how often people, looking back at their own divorce, identified these as significant causes—not how severe the issues are when they happen. As one obvious example, any form of domestic violence is normally more serious than communication problems.
Couples who divorce after the age of 50, sometimes called a gray divorce, give additional reasons for ending their union that range from empty nest syndrome to a spouse's serious health problems.
Of course, every marriage is unique, and the vast majority of couples face at least one of the problems on this list at some point in their relationship. But while some issues are more harmful than others (like domestic abuse and serious substance abuse disorders), most don't have to lead to divorce—as long as both spouses are willing to work together to save the marriage. That's probably why a lack of commitment was at the top of the list in multiple studies.