All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Divorced Boy

Two Dutch researchers say that the most likely cause of divorce is changing along with its frequency. A divorce in the 1950s, they say, was most likely due to either adultery or violence. Today, they say, a divorce is most likely traced to some emotional cause, like inattention or lack of communication. The percentage citing the husband’s tendency to spend too much time at work and not enough time with the wife has more than tripled.

The London Times has a piece about the reasearch online this morning. Paul de Graaf, associate professor of sociology at Radboud University in Holland, says, “Motives for divorce in the past were much more serious. Motives today are much more about personal growth and emotions. In personal terms the threshold for divorce has come down. People are much more individualist. They are more free and that has changed divorce motives.”

de Graaf is the co-author of the study, based on interviews with 1700 people in Holland divorced since 1949. The research divided its subjects into three groups, those divorced 1949-72, 1973-84, and 1985-96, respectively. In the post-war decade, the number one cause of divorce cited by the participants (73% of women, 42% of men) was unappealing personal habits, like eating with the mouth open, singing along with records, or not washing enough.

The other oft-cited causes included “not able to talk” (69% of women, 70% of men), “not enough attention” (67% of women, 70% of men), infidelity and violence (54% of women). The Times article doesn’t state the percentage of men complaining of infidelity or violence. Only 8% of women blamed overwork, and no men did.

Now jump to the most recent group. 28% of women divorcing recently complained about their husbands spending too much time at work, and 30% complained about household chores.The percentage of women complaining of violence fell more than half, and the percentage complaining of adultery fell by a third.

Lee’s Note: I think this research is valuable, and I talk about it because I’d like to see more of it. However, let’s remember its inherent limitations. The researchers didn’t ask questions of divorcing people at the same time in their divorce. They asked the questions of the oldest cohort decades after the divorce, and they asked the questions of the newest quadrant when the divorce was much more recent.

Everyone who works with divorcing people knows how their “narrative” about the divorce evolves over time. Issues that were white hot in the heat of the divorce, tempered by decades of memories, may get removed from the narrative and sometimes even the memory altogether. By the time one has been divorced for awhile, his or her narrative of it may have changed quite a bit from what it was when the divorce was fresh. I won’t venture a guess as to which is more accurate; I just know they’re dramatically different.

Also, the researchers were talking to three separate generations of divorcing people, each of which had its own expectations about what constituted “okay” grounds for divorce. It’s possible that each generation had learned to supply the reasons that worked the best over time.

Divorcing people constantly work to refine their narrative. Quite unconsciously, they “try out” words and phrases on their friends and family that describe the reasons for the breakup. Those that work well and seem to satisfy people stay in, and those that prompt unpleasant or unwelcome questions and responses get weeded out.