Are Your Divorce Fantasies Normal?

Most spouses who think about divorcing would rather fix their marriage instead.

It's quite normal to think about divorcing even when you don't really want to. Image Source/Getty

Do you ever wonder if it is “normal” to think about getting a divorce? According to a large-scale study by researchers out of the Family Studies Center at Brigham Young University, having such thoughts are relatively “normal.”  The study’s overarching goal is to understand, even prevent divorce by exploring the thinking and decision making about divorce. Three thousand married individuals were surveyed as part of the National Divorce Decision-Making Project to understand how people consider the option of divorce.

What sorts of thoughts are people having and what do they do about them? Better yet, what should they do? The study had some interesting findings.

Divorce ideation is not as uncommon as people may realize. In fact, more than half of married survey participants report that they have had thoughts about divorce, either in the past or currently, either spoken or unspoken. And, one in four spouses has recently (within the last six months) thought about divorcing.

"In our culture, it is virtually impossible not to have some thoughts."

   ~Dr. Alan Hawkins


The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Alan Hawkins, Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young, has much to say about the key findings. “We wanted to understand how people are thinking about divorce and what mental and emotional process they go through when deciding.” What was most interesting to Dr. Hawkins was that “There’s no question that thoughts about divorce are definitely there and that in our culture it is virtually impossible not to have some thoughts.” In essence, our culture’s high divorce rates are believed to be a contributing factor, making divorce thoughts so common.

The people who considered divorce less frequently also had less severe marital problems such as abuse, addiction, and infidelity. They were also more hopeful about the marriage despite their problems, and they were more willing to work harder to resolve marital problems. A majority, regardless of problem severity, wanted to keep their marriage intact and fix their problems.

Many respondents who had prior thoughts about divorce, but did not follow through, reported that they were happy to still be married. Surprisingly, most reported that their marriage improved even without any particular intervention. Consequently, having thoughts about divorce is not always a sign that divorce is necessarily imminent. Dr. Hawkins believes that “thoughts about divorce were scary enough that when they intruded into our conscience, we must be at a pretty high level [of distress].” He elaborates, “While many people do have thoughts about divorce, for most, these thoughts are pretty ‘soft,’ meaning infrequent and most do not want to give up on the marriage.” At times, the thoughts were often just situational, such as after a particularly bad argument. “Even the more serious thinkers still do not wish to bail.”

Dr. Hawkins explains that there is an idea that there is ‘casual divorce’ in our society, however, he notes, “I don’t see much evidence of that.”  In fact, many of those with thoughts about divorce reported that the thoughts continued for several years. The “quickie” and casual divorce can happen, but it was not seen in this representative sample. “I see people taking their vows seriously,” states Dr. Hawkins.

The research team is still exploring the link between having such thoughts and taking action.

The most commonly identified tools that people use to either resolve or simply outlast their marital problems are patience, perspective, and commitment. These strategies were much more common than taking direct action to fix problems within the marriage (e.g., such as seeking marriage counseling). However, one or more of these more passive strategies may not be the best approach.

Dr. Hawkins interprets the results in a way that makes him think many people “Seem to be waiting for time to resolve things as opposed to taking proactive measures. They are not taking the initiative to see counselors or clergy very often. But this often just wears away the relationship.”  Waiting to see if problems go away is a ”hit or miss” strategy: It works for some people, but for many others, this strategy failed miserably.

The most helpful reported tactic was “taking action on their own, for example, forgiving a partner or talking to the partner” says Dr. Hawkins.

It is often assumed that it takes a lot of unhappiness and dissatisfaction for someone to think about getting a divorce.  However, this study demonstrates that this is not the case, and these types of thoughts are actually very common. It is vital to remember that there is a big difference between thoughts and actions.  In fact, thoughts may influence a person to try a proactive strategy to repair the marriage, rather than to push them towards divorce or separation. 

What should you do if you are thinking about getting divorced?

Saying the “D” word out loud to your spouse can be quite scary for both you and your spouse. “It is clear in our data that even the serious thinkers have not addressed this with their spouses. This is likely more dangerous. People appear to be having the conversation with their spouses inside their own heads! This is generally not the most effective way to go about it,” cautions Dr. Hawkins. Perhaps a conversation about your dissatisfaction with the relationship, not necessarily mentioning your thoughts about divorce, is the place to begin. Outside help (a marriage therapist, clergy member) is suggested, but if that is not the route you want to take, try to find strategies to address the problems directly. There are very helpful resources available for troubled marriages, aside from marriage therapy, if you are opposed to seeing a therapist.

No matter the choice to remedy these issues, being proactive, not passive, is the best strategy.  Let your thoughts about divorce be the impetus to working on your marriage.  Take the necessary steps.  Do not just wait for things to get better on their own.   Discuss the troubling issues with your spouse before you rush to discuss divorce, or worse still, before you take steps to getting a divorce. It will be worth the effort.