Breaking up is hard to do, but divorce? That takes the cake. All kinds of things can lead to a split, from the token celebrity-cited “irreconcilable differences” to a messy affair, or the loss of anything remotely close to the spark you felt in the good old days.
And often, the reason you cross the line from forever to never again traces back to your dating days. “Sometimes people want a divorce for the same reason they might have had doubts of going into the relationship,” Elizabeth Cohen, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York says. “It’s usually the things that bothered you before, they just compounded over so long that you know it’s not going to change.”
Of course, you presumably wanted to be together (at least at some point) if you got married. But it’s hard as hell for people to change in the ways you may need them to in order to maintain a healthy marriage where both of you can ~thrive~. That’s why getting a divorce can feel like a slow burn. “It’s likely the decision comes after years and years of contemplating and trying to make the marriage work,” says Erin Levine, family law attorney and founder of Hello Divorce, a legal assistance platform.
While the reasons for a divorce are unique to the relationship, here are the issues that a divorce lawyer and psychologist say pop up most often:
1. Communication Problems
The crux of any relationship is communication, Cohen says. Sure, you typically hear reasons for divorce like money disagreements, commitment issues and the other things in this list, but Levine reminds us that these problems are also rooted in a breakdown of communication.
If you can’t talk your ish out in a way both partners understand, all that’s left is an unproductive argument and growing resentment. “Your behavior might not match what your partner needs,” Cohen says. That’s why divorce often waits at the bottom of that slippery slope.
2. Falling Out Of Love
According to a study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, nearly half of recently divorced respondents cited a lack of love or intimacy as the reason for their separation. Instead of one big betrayal, sometimes just growing apart and losing your romantic feelings can end a marriage. “There’s this overarching feeling of distance that happens over time,” Cohen says.
3. There’s No Intimacy
Along with the “I love you, but I’m not in love with you” realization, a dormant bedroom life is also a factor for divorce. There’s nothing shameful about a dry spell, but a lack of physical affection—sexy times and long bear hugs included—can cause serious disconnect. “People start telling themselves like, ‘Okay, well the lack of intimacy, I can handle that.’ But ultimately it just becomes too much for them” Levine says.
4. It’s Not A Partnership Anymore
People come to Levine’s practice saying that they’ve felt misunderstood and unheard in the marriage. “They tell me, ‘Here I am in a relationship and it feels like I’m all alone,’” she says. Though they might have full and exciting personal lives, they’ll feel like they’re no longer working as a unit with their spouse, whether that’s because their priorities for the future of shifted or because they realize they simply don’t have much in common with their partners anymore. That disconnect and loneliness can be reason enough for divorce.
5. You Weren’t Ready For Marriage
“Similarity between two partners helps predict who stays together and who doesn’t,” says Terri Orbuch, PhD, author of Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship and professor at Oakland University. “If you marry too early, or haven’t been able to identify who you are and what’s important to you, then you can’t choose the best partner.” While you want to be in it for the long haul, maybe you rushed down the aisle or weren’t fully in tune with yourself when you said “I do”. That’s when a crop of clashes—think: differing values, emotional baggage from past flings, and a lack of real trust—pop up and put you on the road to divorce.
When the National Center for Biotechnology Information asked 52 people what contributed to their divorce in 2013, a third of them named substance abuse a factor that contributed to the end of their marriages. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or another damaging vice, Levine notes that substance abuse is often a factor in divorces she sees in her practice. If a partner doesn’t want to get help or they become a threat to their partner’s safety, it’s often a straw that breaks the camel’s back.
7. Domestic Abuse
Abuse, from physical harm to emotional manipulation like a partner withdrawing affection as punishment, leaves people feeling powerless. Separating from the abusive partner—in a safe and supported way—is the best way to regain your safety. Abuse differs from other causes for divorce in that “it’s not a relationship issue, but something that is within your partner,” Orbuch says. In the same NCBI study, around a quarter of respondents said domestic violence led to their divorce.
Without trust, what’s left? An affair can feel like the ultimate betrayal and sign that healthy communication skidded to a halt a long time ago. While Cohen notes that it can be possible to move past the infidelity together, it’s a toughie. Most of the time? It’s the moment that causes a partner to officially dip out.
9. Lack Of Emotional Support
“The breakdown in communication often leads to people feeling desperate, so they criticize or get angry or make demands,” Levine says. “Nobody wants to be around that or that energy.” Cohen agrees, noting she speaks to many divorced women who felt undermined, disrespected, and like they weren’t a priority in the marriage. Once empathy and compassion for one another take a nosedive, “it’s very hard to come back together,” Cohen says.
10. They’re Just Done
“People in long-term marriages are generally not just walking out on their marriages for the heck of it,” Levine says. “These are people who tried to save their marriages for years and years, and it just didn’t work out.” You’ve put in so much work to give the relationship new life, but your partner hasn’t shown the same effort. Once it becomes clear that things aren’t going to change, people pull the plug. Every little thing builds up contempt or resentment, until one morning you wake up like: “Here are your divorce papers, my guy.”
11. Financial Issues
How (and when) you spend it, save it, or make it, money is one of those things that can easily trigger tension in a marriage. Disagreements about finances make matters dicey, especially when it gets in the way of working together as a team, Cohen says. Someone might think their partner spends too much, another might be worried about their partner’s debt, and, in some cases, couples can’t compromise about what to spend their money on. Over time, the strain gets to be too much. What’s mine was once yours, but not anymore.
12. Lost Sense Of Self
We are fluid beings, and what you want can change over the course of a 20-year marriage. “Very often in relationships, a partner has been sacrificing what they want and need for the sake of keeping the marriage together,” Cohen says. Whether that’s passing up a job opportunity or getting lost in the role of “Mom,” the marriage could take you down a path you don’t identify with all that much anymore. It’s one thing to compromise, but it’s another to lose sight of your individuality completely. If you do, you might resent your partner and want out.