How to Lie with Divorce Statistics

There is an old saying often attributed to Mark Twain that goes… “there are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies and statistics.”

There are all types of misleading or false examples about divorce statistics by people who have a particular point of view about what meaning we should draw from rising or falling divorce rates.

Among the most troublesome examples is provided by this website which attempts to demonstrate that most of the worst problems in society (for example, murder, rape, armed robbery, etc.) are all the result of divorce.   Below is a sample of one of the tables at this website.  In this graph the author asserts that the divorce rate causes the murder rate to increase.  However, all this graph really shows is that there is a correlation between the murder rate and the divorce rate.  In statistics a fundamental idea is that the “correlation” between two numbers does not translate into a “causal” relationship.  There are at least three hypotheses that can explain the correlation between rates of murder and divorce:

  1. Murder causes divorce.
  2. Divorce causes murder.
  3. Some other factor (mental illness or spouse abuse) causes both divorce and murder.

The only way to figure out what is causing murder or divorce rates from rising is to test many different hypotheses and control for some of the possible other factors that may be contributing to changes in the rates.  It is important to test whether rates in one period of time predict future rates.

There are plenty of real consequences of divorce that should concern us without suggesting that all of society’s ills are the result of divorce.

Alert: false graph about divorce and murder rates

Should I Try and Work on My Marriage or Just Get Divorced?

This is a tough question that faces many couples during their marriage.  There are many issues to consider and it is not always easy to find helpful advice.  Alan Hawkins and his colleagues from Brigham Young University have written a very thoughtful guide to help couples think through this process.

They include helpful activities that either (or both) partners can do to get a realistic assessment of where they are.  Hawkins and colleagues also provide information about the effects of divorce on children and adults.

This is a valuable resource for couples.

Improving Communication to Prevent Divorce– Jeremy Kanter

Although divorce rates in the United States have been decreasing in the last ten years, about 36 percent of first marriages will end in divorce (National Center for Health Statistics). This is a serious problem for Americans due to the negative effects a divorce can have on both children and adults. For adults there is clear evidence of a link between long-lasting healthy marriages and better health outcomes, such as living longer, lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart attacks, cancer, and arthritis (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 1987). There also is a link to depression from going through a divorce or having a poor relationship (Braithwaite & Fincham, 2009). A healthy marriage can truly add years to one’s life. On average men live seven years longer than single or divorced men and women live three years longer (Harrison 2007). Not only is the consequences of divorce felt by the adults, it also can be detrimental for children. Children who experience their parents fighting are more likely to be depressed, have higher blood pressure, experience social problems, as well as learned negative models to handle conflict themselves (Sarrazin & Cyr, 2007). The conflict that couples fight about most frequently has been observed as arguments over: Money, children (parenting styles, division of responsibilities), chores, leisure time, sex, and relatives (Oggins 2003). Yet, instead of addressing each individual topic to couples, researchers have turned to communication skills in order to help with all of these topics by just improving the way these issues are discussed. These communication skills can be taught before or during marriage. The main focus of these classes is communication exercises in order to help couples with their relationship quality and satisfaction.

One aspect that communication plays a role in couples’ relationships is what Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg (2001) describe as” filters.” They describe multiple filters such as: distractions, emotional state, beliefs and expectations, difference in style, and self-protection.  Distractions are defined as any internal or external factors that take away from the conversation you are having with your partner. An emotional state is simply when a partner comes back from a stressful day and takes this out on his or her partner. Beliefs and expectations can be seen when a partner expects the worst out of their partner, if one partner expects the worst, they will be looking for the worst to happen. Difference in styles is a filter that can be seen when one partner grows up with parents who express themselves by yelling, when the other partner is used to a more quite approach, when these two approaches meet, it could be a negative filter to their conversation. Finally, self-protection is one partner not bringing up a topic because of the fear of getting rejected. All of these filters are part of a communication process.  If these filters are not recognized; they can be detrimental to couples communication and lead to a lowered satisfaction in the relationship and eventually dissolution (Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg, 2001).

A second aspect of communication that can have considerable impact on relationships is the frequency of negative to positive communication.   John Gottman has spent many hours in his Love Lab studying distressed couples and has created several theories involving couples and how to make a marriage work.  This has led him to identify the ratio between positive and negative communication of 5 to 1.  That is, for every 5 positive interactions there is one negative one.  Gottman has found that this is a powerful predictor of divorce.  When this ratio is less than 5 to 1, problems in the relationship mount and dissolution usually follows.  Gottman asserts that the four most damaging types of communication are criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness. (Carrere & Gottman, 1999).  He defines criticism as an attack on a person’s character instead of the situation. Contempt would be one partner viewing themselves as better than the other. Stonewalling is when one person shuts down emotionally from the conversation because the other partner is just attacking them with so much at once. Finally, defensiveness is the reluctance of one partner to acknowledge responsibility in the situation the couple is dealing with. These all tie into communication because if one does not recognize these creeping into their relationship, it could doom the conversation and make any communication nearly impossible.

The final way poor communication can lead to divorce is through expectations and roles. With the shifting roles of women throughout the last 30-40 years, marriages have been affected as well. There is a push for equal roles in decision making in relationships which creates new opportunities for conflict.  Many of these conflicts can originate from the expectations an individual has about how a certain topic will be addressed before marriage, and then the actual behaviors that occur during the marriage, this dissonance can cause a lot of dissatisfaction and conflict for couples (Madden & Janoff-Bulman 1981). When poor communication skills are mixed in with this dissonance it can lead to detrimental problems for couples, ones that if not addressed can lead to a divorce.

In the past 20 years these findings about the ways that communication issues can contribute to divorce has been translated into couples’ communication programs.  Researchers have been quite successful in creating curriculums to teach to couples communication skills that can strengthen their relationships.  The most successful marital education program to date is Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP)( Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg (2001), which uses a cognitive-behavioral approach. PREP is structured to have 5 main sessions: Sessions 1 and 2 focus on communication skills training, session 3 focuses on problem-solving training, session 4 discusses clarification of marital expectations, and session 5 has a focus on sensual/sexual education and relationship enhancement (Markman et al., 1988). PREP has been shown to sustain its effectiveness over three years and measures its effectiveness on marital satisfaction, lower levels of relationship instability, relationship aggression, lower rates of divorce or breaking up, and more positive interaction. Interestingly, even with this widely research based program, in a 5 year follow-up, the only advantage the experimental group had over the control group was in communication skills and less physical violence in men (Markmen et al., 1993). There also seem to be many limitation to these programs, the biggest concern by many researchers is in fact these classes are not reaching couples that need them the most (low-income families). There also seems to be a gap in testing these programs with a diverse population which makes it nearly impossible to generalize the effectiveness of a program to a wide audience (Carroll & Doherty, 2003).

A way that these classes can be sure to reach more families is moving the program to an online delivery.  There has been one initial attempt by converting PREP to ePREP (Braithwaite & Finacham, 2009). They found in a six month follow up significant improvements in relationship satisfaction and communication skills. A proposed solution would be to create a program similar to PREP and ePREP but with more interaction utilizing the newest social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. When a program like this is created, it could assist many couples who are either reluctant about attending therapy, or do not have time or transportation to go to these classes. An online program could be taken in the convenience of one’s own house. Divorce education programs have already moved many of their co-parenting classes to the internet (Schramm, & Mccaulley, 2012), so to move marriage education classes there next would be a logical step. Using Facebook and Twitter can also help with these programs giving couples exercises to do at home and also help with supplying an open forum where couples can ask questions or just hear different experiences from other couples who are dealing with possibly the same issues as them.  This would also be a great way to post any new findings in the research to keep content up to date. As well, this would be a great application for phones so people can open this up when they have truly any free time, not only when they are in front of their computers. Combining empirical methods to improve communication skills with the newest technology of the 21st century can only help strengthen marriages and benefit families across the world.

There are a multiple of topics that couples fight about, yet it seems to be not what couples are fighting about that leads to divorce, rather how they are fighting (Gottman, 1999). It also has been observed that one of the leading predictors of divorce is poor communication (Bradbury and Karney, 1995). If we can teach couples how to approach these discussions with better communication, we could equip them with the power to strengthen their future marriages. It sometimes is not about being right that gets couples past a fight, but instead, just being heard, which a key concept is taught in communication training (Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg, 2001).


Braithwaite, S. R., & Fincham, F. D. (2009). A randomized clinical trial of a computer based preventive intervention: Replication and extension of ePREP. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 32-38.

Carrere, S., & Gottman, J. (1999). Predicting Divorce among Newlyweds from the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion. Family Process, 38(3), 293-301.

Carroll, J. S., & Doherty, W. J. (2003). Evaluating the effectiveness of premarital prevention programs: A meta-analytic review of outcome research. Family Relations, 52, 105-18.

Center for disease control and prevention. (2011).  Divorce, marriage, and cohabitation rates. Retrieved from

Gottman, J.M. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York, NY: The Rivers Press.

Kamey, B. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (1995). The longitudinal course of marital quality and stability: A review of theory, methods, and research. Psychological Bulletin, 118, 3-34.

Kiecolt, G., Fisher, L., Ogrocki, P., Stout, J., Speicher, C., & Glaser, R. (1987). Marital quality, marital disruption, and immune function. Psychosomatic Medicine, 49, 13-34.

Madden, M. E., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1981). Blame, control, and marital satisfaction: Wives’ attributions for conflict in marriage. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 43, 63-74.

Markman, H. J., & And, O. (1988). Prevention of marital distress: A longitudinal investigation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 10-17.

Markman, H. J., Renick, M., & Floyd, F. J. (1993). Preventing marital distress through communication and conflict management training: a 4- and 5-year follow-up. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 6170-77.

Markman, H., Stanley, S., & Blumberg, S. (2001). Fighting for your marriage: positive steps for preventing divorce and preserving a lasting love. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Oggins, J. (2003). Topics of marital disagreement among African-American and Euro-American newlyweds. Psychological Reports, 92, 419-425.

Sarrazin, J., & Cyr, F. (2007). Parental conflicts and their damaging effects on children. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 47, 77-93.

Schramm, D. G., & McCaulley, G. (2012). Divorce Education for Parents: A Comparison of Online and In-Person Delivery Methods. Journal Of Divorce & Remarriage, 53, 602-617. doi:10.1080/10502556.2012.721301

Helping Army Couples Deal with Infidelity

Following infidelity, most couples wonder: is there any way to recover from this injury to the relationship and save the marriage? Elizabeth Allen and her colleagues recently conducted a study with Army personnel to test whether marriage education could improve the relationships of couples who had experienced infidelity. They were asked to participate in a program about marriage education; there was no mention of marital distress or infidelity in the recruitment. Half of the couples were assigned to participate in the Prevention and Relationship Education Program (PREP) and the other half were assigned to a control group. The couples were in the late 20s, were mostly white (about 70 percent) and had a high school education. The couples had been married an average of seven years and about three-quarters had children.

The program was successful in increasing these couples’ marital satisfaction and had a positive effect on their communication skills. Despite these improvements, the PREP program did not decrease the likelihood of divorce for couples with a history of infidelity. Allen and colleagues conclude, “For some couples with a history of infidelity, PREP may strengthen the marriage and reduce the chances of divorce, but for other couples, PREP’s focus on characteristics of healthy and unhealthy marriage may clarify awareness of ongoing marital issues, resulting in the decision to end the marriage.”

The Army has launched an education campaign, called Strong Bonds, to help service members and their spouses strengthen their marriages.

More detail at Huffington Post…..

Do Teenagers Cause Divorce?

Every parent with teens has probably found themselves in a fight over what to do about their teenager, but could the behavior the teenager in your family result in you getting a divorce?  Turns out this may be the case.  There is a lot of scientific evidence that has demonstrated that children influence parents and visa versa.  When infants smile, their parents are more likely to continue to play or talk with them.  And the play and talk encourage more smiling and laughter from babies.  Positive emotions and behaviors in one member of the family seem to trigger positive responses in other members of the family.  Sometimes we forget that this also works for negative emotions and behaviors as well.

Mary Julia Moore and Cheryl Buehler studied a group of middle school children over a 4-year period through early adolescence to examine the ways in which their behavior influenced the behavior of their parents.  In particular, they were interested in the ways that problem behaviors may influence their parents’ likelihood of divorce.  The scientists were interested in testing the pathway through which troublesome adolescent behavior may undermine the parents’ marriage.  They hypothesize that when teenagers have trouble, this undermines parents’ feelings of effectiveness in parenting which may influence mothers or fathers to be less supportive to each other in trying to deal with the problem behavior.  This hypothesis makes sense based on other scientific evidence and it all makes commonsense.  If a parents feels like they are not getting their partner’s support in dealing with their teen challenging behavior, this seems likely to trigger feelings of resentment and overall distress.  All of which might lead to questions about one’s marriage.

The scientist measured adolescents’ problem behavior when they were in the 6th grade.  They measured both antisocial and hostile behaviors as well as behaviors such as depression.  Both mothers and fathers were asked questions about whether they had thought about divorce and other questions to get a sense of their divorce proneness and questions about their sense of effectiveness as a parent.  The analyses examined whether adolescent behaviors predicted parents’ divorce proneness 4 years later.  The sample in this study was primarily White and had some college education.  Some caution should be noted that these findings may not apply to all types of families.

As the scientists had expected, adolescents’ problem behaviors had a significant effect on the couple’s divorce proneness. This effect appears to be primarily through damage to mothers’ and fathers’ feelings about their parenting abilities. This is especially true for fathers; fathers who have difficulty managing their teen’s behavior feel badly and may give up trying to be a parent. The scientists also found that mothers and fathers’ feelings of effectiveness as parents influenced each other as well; when one parent was feeling less effective, the other, more effective parent begin thinking about divorce. It seems like when one parent gives up on trying to help manage the difficult behavior, the other parent perceives this as a lack of support. This lack of support seems to damage the marital relationship.  

These findings remind us of the complexity of family relationships.  All members of the family have an influence on each other.  This can run in a positive direction or in a negative direction.  These findings remind parents who are having difficulty with their children’s challenging behaviors to seek help with managing these behaviors.  There are many effective parenting self-help books and programs that can be of assistance in dealing with children and there are many professionals who can help.

Cohabitation & Divorce

Should you live with your future spouse before tying the knot? Does cohabitation provide a good trial run for marriage or is it just a sign of a lack of commitment? Research evidence on this frequently debated topic has been mixed over the last decade. What does the science say today?

Wendy Manning and Jessica Cohen took a look at recent marriages (since 1996) to see what the latest evidence looks like. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that many couples are cohabiting prior to marriage. The most recent estimates from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research indicate that about two-thirds of all couples live together before getting married. From 1987 to 2008, there has been a steady increase in the number of couples living together across the entire age range.

This is an area in which there has been mixed scientific evidence.  This new report by Manning and Cohen provides some new insights.  See an extended discussion of this report on Huffington Post….