A Marriage Isn’t Over Until It’s Over: Research on Divorce Ambivalence

We generally assume that when people enter the legal divorce process, they’ve come to accept the reality that divorce is inevitable.

Even therapists and lawyers tend to assume that when the papers are filed, ambivalence about divorcing is gone and the only task ahead is to help couples have a constructive end to their marriage. However, recent research is showing that these assumptions aren’t founded. In fact, many divorcing people aren’t sure they want their marriage to end. This post is going to be a lot more technical, so bear with me.

**Are you experiencing divorce ambivalence? It’s not too late to see if your marriage is salvageable. Reach out to your local discernment counselor for help.**

The first empirical study on attitudes toward reconciliation during the divorce process was conducted by Doherty, Peterson and Willoughby (2011), who surveyed a sample of 2,484 divorcing parents.

They found that about 25% of individual parents believed their marriage could still be saved, and about 30% indicated an interest in reconciliation services.

That study was replicated by Hawkins, Willoughby and Doherty (2012) who found similar levels of belief that the marriage could be saved (26%) as well as interest in reconciliation services (35%).

A third study (Doherty, Harris, and Wilde, 2016) asked about specific attitudes towards the divorce in a sample of 624 individual parents who had filed for divorce. This study found that just two thirds of participants were certain they wanted it. The rest were ambivalent or actively did not want the divorce. Parents who were not certain about the divorce were highly interested in help to save their marriage.

Keep in mind that all of these studies were conducted with people who were well into the divorce process. Unpublished data from clients in initial consultation with lawyers has found that half of initial clients were ambivalent about getting divorce or didn’t want it.

Other surveys of divorced people have found indicators of ambivalence about divorce. Several surveys reported that half of divorced individuals wished that they had worked harder to overcome their marital differences and avoid divorce (see Hawkins & Fackrell, 2009 for summary). Heatheringon and Kelley (2002) reported that in 75% of divorced couples, at least one partner had regrets about the decision to divorce a year after the breakup.

In a qualitative study, Knox and Corte (2007) found striking levels of rethinking among currently separated couples. They reported:

“Clearly, one effect of involvement in the process of separation was a re-evaluation of the desirability of initiating a separation to the degree that they would alert others contemplating separation/divorce to rethink their situation and to attempt reconciliation”

In summary, research now shows that divorce ambivalence is widespread among people who have entered the divorce process. It’s not over just because the legal divorce process has begun.

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