Marital Reconciliation: Divorcing Couples With Children Often Open To Saving Marriage

Turns out that divorce may not be "the end" for many couples after all.

According to one new study, a significant number of divorcing parents were open to saving their marriage and would even try professional reconciliation services -- despite having already filed for divorce.

The report, released in late September, surveyed nearly 2,500 divorcing couples with children. Participants were asked, "Even at this point, do you think your divorce could be prevented if one or both of you works hard to save the marriage?" They were also asked to respond "yes," "no" or "maybe" to the following statement: "If the court offered a reconciliation service, I would seriously consider trying it."

The findings were surprising: either one or both partners in about 45 percent of couples indicated that they still had hope for the marriage as well as a possible interest in reconciliation. Overall, men were more likely to say that their marriage could be saved and were more willing to try a professional reconciliation service.

The study's conclusions lay the groundwork for a legislative proposal aimed to reduce the number of "unnecessary" divorces in the U.S. "The Second Chances Act," published Friday by the Institute of American Values (a conservative organization designed to "strengthen families"), proposes a one-year waiting period for divorce and mandatory education about reconciliation for couples with minor children.

We asked William J. Doherty, a family social science professor at the University of Minnesota and the study's lead researcher, to help us get a better understanding of these findings.

HP: Based on your findings, more men than women believed that their marriage could still be saved with hard work--specifically, about 1 in 3 men as compared to 1 in 5 women. Men were also more likely to be willing to try a reconciliation service. Were you surprised by these results?

WD: I was not surprised, because I think that the function of who initiates the breakup is important and often more women initiate the breakup of marriages than men do. So the person that is broken-up on is more likely to be the one who wants to try to save it. So I think that's what we have: that women, or the person who is thinking of the divorce, doesn't talk about it very much. They may talk to their friends about it, they may take to their therapists about it. But the one who is broken-up upon--"the leavee"--is usually surprised when the announcement comes. And it takes them a while to get their minds around what's happening...and they would really like to try to save it. The person who is "the leaver" has been rehearsing this for months or years--and they are therefore less apt, although it's something that they still do, they're less apt to be thinking of getting help for reconciling.

HP: In your study, individuals who were "earlier" in the divorce process were also more likely to think that their marriage could be saved. Do you have any ideas why this might be, from a therapist's point of view?

WD: A lot of damage gets done in the divorce process itself. The further along you are [in the divorce process], the closer you are to the disillusion of the marriage. The more chances there are to feel like you're being shafted by your spouse. The more likely someone has a new boyfriend or girlfriend. The more likely, even the person who did not want the divorce--the more they're likely they are to resign themselves to it. So, we have data now from three stages--from the lawyer's office, to right after filing, to after taking a class. At each earlier stage there's more ambivalence about the divorce and more openness to getting help.

HP: Among those surveyed, 54 percent indicated that they had received marriage counseling. Did you see any connection between those with counseling to those who believed that their marriage could possibly be saved?

WD: No, that was one of the interesting things. We looked at predictors of who might be interested in reconciliation services...and whether they had marriage counseling or not did not matter.

HP: Overall, what does your research tells about the divorce process?

WD: There's a lot more ambivalence about "following through" on the divorce than anyone of us realized. The outsider's perspective is that when people decide to get divorced and contact the lawyer and so on--it's over. We all line up accordingly. The marriage counselors decide to do divorce counseling, and the family members say things they never said before about your spouse. But inside a marriage, there is a lot more ambivalence and volatility. And that's what we've learned. We now have a project where we're working with these couples that are interested in help, and that's what we see: that week-to-week, and month-to-month, people change their minds.

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