Impact of a Prison Sentence on Marriage

Can a Marriage Survive a Prison Sentence?

Man visiting woman in prison
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The divorce rate among couples where one spouse is incarcerated for one year or more is 80 percent for men and close to 100 percent for women. Another study found that each year of incarceration increases the odds that the inmate's marriage will end in divorce (before or after the inmate gets out of prison) by an average of 32 percent. That does not leave many couples in this situation with much hope of making their marriage work.

Quick Prison Stats

The U.S. has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Since 1980, the American prison system has ballooned. There was a total inmate population of a half million in 1980. Now, on average, there are about 2.3 million inmates in the U.S. penal system. Roughly 1.2 million of those inmates are parents.

Take a Look at Divorce Rates

However, it is important to put the divorce rate statistic in perspective. On average, almost 50 percent of all marriages in the U.S. will end in divorce or separation. That figure includes all people, incarcerated or not. And, if this is a second or third marriage, then divorce rates skyrocket. For example, if both you and your partner have had previous marriages, you are 90 percent more likely to get divorced than if this has been the first marriage for both of you.

The good news is when one spouse has been incarcerated before getting married, the couple is not any more likely to split up.

Victims of Crime

It is important to note that crime affects not only the primary victim/s but extends to the innocent family of the inmate, too. Judee Reeves, the wife of a prison inmate was interviewed in the book, "Inmates and Their Wives: Incarceration and Family Life," and she told book researchers about her feelings on the reach of crime:

"Families of inmates have been called the "hidden victims of crime." When a crime is committed, there are victims other than the primary victim(s). These secondary victims include the families of the primary victim and another often overlooked group of victims—family members of the person who has committed the crime. The families of inmates are often overlooked in research and in designing social programs, yet many suffer devastating consequences as a result of a loved one's incarceration."

How Can Marriage Survive Prison?

Some prisons host seminars for married prisoners and their spouses. Most programs are one or two-day seminars that focus on relationship enhancement, communication skills, dealing with conflict, and self-awareness.

Spouses who are left at home suffer from feelings of being an outcast, guilt, shame, loneliness, financial hardship, and sexual frustration. Phoning can be expensive. There is even stress from the visiting room procedures that many prisons impose on families.

The sense of being demoralized begins even before a loved one is sent off to prison. Approximately 50 percent of marriages dealing with a possible prison term end in separation or divorce prior to a spouse starting his or her sentence.