We used national panel data collected between 1980 and 1997 to classify 208 people’s openended responses to a question on why their marriages ended in divorce. Infidelity was the most commonly reported cause, followed by incompatibility, drinking or drug use, and growing apart. People’s specific reasons for divorcing varied with gender, social class, and life course variables. Former husbands and wives were more likely to blame their ex-spouses than themselves for the problems that led to the divorce. Former husbands and wives claimed, however, that women were more likely to have initiated the divorce. People who attributed the cause of the divorce to the relationship itself, rather than to internal (self) or external factors, tended to have the best postdivorce adjustment. Keywords: divorce; gender; life course; social class
Divorce is a complex event that can be viewed from multiple perspectives. For example, sociological research has focused primarily on structural and life course predictors of marital disruption, such as social class, race, and age at first marriage (Bumpass, Martin, & Sweet, 1991; White, 1991). Psychological research, in contrast, has focused on dimensions of marital interaction, such as conflict management (Gottman, 1994), or on personality characteristics, such as antisocial behavior or chronic negative affect (Leonard & Roberts, 1998). One limitation of these approaches is that neither considers the individual’s perceptions about why the divorce occurred. Indeed, when explaining what caused their marriages to end, people appear to give relatively little credence to widely studied factors such as age at marriage or conflict resolution skills. In this article, we use a third approach to studying divorce—one that considers the subjective accounts of recently divorced individuals. Examining the accounts of divorced individuals provides a useful complement to more objective methods and is necessary for a full understanding of the divorce process. This approach to 602
Authors’ Note: This research was supported by Grant No. R01 AG04146 from the National Institute on Aging. We thank Alan Booth for comments on an earlier version of this article. JOURNAL OF FAMILY ISSUES, Vol. 24 No. 5, July 2003 602-626
© 2003 Sage Publicationsstudying marital dissolution, however, is relatively uncommon, and only a few studies of this topic (e.g., Hopper, 1993) have appeared in the research literature during the past decade.
The study reported in this article had three goals. The first was to describe and categorize the perceived causes of divorce, as reported by a sample of recently divorced individuals. The second goal was to see how the reported causes of divorce varied with structural factors (such as gender and social class) and life course variables (such as age at marriage, duration of marriage, and having children). The third goal focused on a topic rarely addressed in the research literature: links between the perceived causes of divorce and subsequent adjustment. In particular, we examined people’s causal attributions for divorce (whether the perceived cause was located within the respondent, the spouse, the relationship, or forces external to the relationship) and how these attributions related to divorce adjustment, attachment to the former spouse, and general appraisals of life. We use national longitudinal data collected between 1980 and 1997 for this purpose.
Prior research on people’s accounts of divorce has focused primarily on variations by gender, socioeconomic status (SES), and the life course. Table 1 summarizes these trends.
Compared with men, women tend to monitor their relationships more closely, become aware of relationship problems sooner, and are more likely to initiate discussions of relationship problems with their partners (Thompson & Walker, 1991). Men, in contrast, are more likely than women to withdraw from...
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