Divorce: What went wrong?

Learn how the matrimonial roles have changed over the past 50 years and how your marriage can be effected by the increase in divorce rate. Studies suggest that 50% of marriages will end in divorce in the USA. Read how to cope with divorce recovery.

By Edward A. Dreyfus, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist - Divorce Mediator - Life Coach
Updated: August 27, 2014
Dating after Divorce

The "D-Word" strikes at the heart of all married couples. Prenuptial agreements — agreements made even before marriage—all have provisions for what happens in the event of a divorce. Recent statistics suggest that 50% of all marriages in the United States will end in divorce. In Southern California the divorce rate is purported to be even higher, somewhere in the neighborhood of 60-75%, depending on which study one reads.

Changing Expectations

The institution of marriage has changed dramatically over the past 100 years. Many factors played a part in this evolution. In the 1890s marriage was often a matter of convenience. Roles for men and women were clearly defined; each knew what was expected of them. Men were expected to work, with their primary responsibility being the family provider. Women were to take care of the home and bear children for whom they would then be the caretaker. Marriages were for the purpose of raising a family—breeding children who would grow up to help with the chores, work the fields, or take over the family business.

Increased longevity, increased affluence, and increased opportunity for personal growth, when combined with significantly changing expectations regarding marriage, suggest that people must learn new or different ways of relating to one another if their marriage is going to survive. When this is not possible, either for lack of desire, capacity, or interest on the part of one or both parties, divorce becomes an option.


A magazine article I recently read stated that people, particularly women, who are currently age 65 are expected to live until 85. Younger people are expected to live longer, into their 90s. More and more people are reaching the age of 100 and beyond. It is becoming commonplace for people to have more than one career in a lifetime. After all, a youngster of 65 still has another 20 or more years in which to begin a new career. Young people today no longer think about a career that they will be in for the rest of their life; they think more about their "first" career, fully expecting a second or perhaps third career to follow.

These same young people are thinking about marriage in a similar vein. Many of them recognize that the concept of marriage "until death do us part" is more a figurative use of the phrase than a literal use. People currently in their 40s who married while in their 20s are realizing that to have one partner for a lifetime may be highly improbable.

Yet, in spite of the odds, many people are able to make marriage at least tolerable for many decades. Some people grow together, while others grow separately but are sufficiently satisfied with one another to remain together.

Negotiation and Compromise

In previous generations a woman was taught to accommodate—to put aside her needs in favor of the needs of the man. She was to accommodate her needs to him. This model of marriage reduced women to the status of wife, while elevating men to the status of husband. The power lay with the husband.

In a marriage of equals, constant accommodation on the part of one person will eventually cause resentment and subsequently conflict. Compromise and negotiation, on the other hand, recognizes the equality of both parties as they seek an equitable and mutually satisfying solution to a problem. In compromise neither party may get exactly what they want at any given time. In these marriages preservation and enhancement of the relationship is more important than getting what one wants. Couples must learn to let go the argument in the service of maintaining an intimate connection. When being right and winning becomes more important than the relationship, the marriage will be in trouble.

One of the most important aspects of contemporary marriage is learning how to negotiate. A successful marriage today has more in common with business negotiations than with "Father Knows Best." The better able a couple is in learning the skills of negotiation, the less conflict they will experience and the greater their satisfaction.

Divorce: Failure or Change

Many people inappropriately believe that divorce means that they have failed. Not that the marriage failed, but that they personally failed—hence they are a failure. It is as though they believe that when people marry it is supposed to last forever, as though it were preordained; thus, if the marriage ends they must have done something wrong to make it happen.

Change is the only constant. Hence, marriage is constantly evolving and imperfect. Sometimes two people are able to grow, change, and evolve in similar directions, sometimes not. Sometimes our expectations remain constant, more often they change. Sometimes our expectations are the same as our partners, and sometimes not. The longer we live, the more possibility for change to be in different directions. "‘Til death do us part" is more likely when we live to be 50 than when we live to be 100.


All too often divorcing couples do so in an atmosphere of hostility. They forget that they once were in love with one another. This is indeed unfortunate. Divorce ranks second only to death of a loved one as the most stressful of life’s experiences. The stress in inevitable. But the strife is not.

Usually there are other variables at play that lead to the acrimony accompanying divorce. Frequently the acrimony covers pain and hurt. This is true regardless of who feels like the injured party. Pain is integral to loss. In a divorce there are many losses. The loss of the fantasy of marriage and the magic of the relationship, the loss of the friendship, the loss of friends, a lifestyle, a home, familiarity, children, loss of love, identity, to name but a few of the losses.

  • When we are angry we do not have to experience the hurt and the loss. We can cover the pain with anger, at least temporarily.
  • Sometimes we feel angry because we have been victimized by our spouse. We feel like the injured party and we want to fight back.
  • Sometimes we are angry with ourselves for not being a better spouse, for not knowing better, for not paying attention, for not being all that we might have been.
  • Sometimes we get depressed, too. We blame ourselves, we feel guilty. We are ashamed. So we hire a lawyer to help us give everything to our spouse in order to make amends for real or imagined hurts that we have inflicted.

Divorce Counseling and Divorce Mediation

One of the reasons that divorce often takes as long as it does is because many issues just mentioned are being acted out during the course of the dissolution. An alternative to the expensive, stressful, and time-consuming approach of a litigated, hotly contested divorce is to try either divorce counseling and/or divorce mediation.

Divorce counseling, when conducted by a licensed mental health practitioner who specializes in working with divorcing couples, can help the couple sort out the emotional from the practical issues of the divorce. As I pointed out earlier, anger over practical issues such as property is usually a product of lingering resentment with regard to the relationship, not the property itself. Once the couple can resolve or at least clarify the cause of the anger, reasonable negotiations can occur

Divorce mediation is the healthy alternative to a litigated divorce. The focus of a mediated divorce is on reaching an equitable solution to such issues as spousal support, property division, child custody, visitation, etc. The couple meets with a mediator (or in my practice a mediation team consisting of a lawyer and a psychologist) to resolve each and every item. Without assessing blame or fault, the mediator helps the divorcing parties develop alternative solutions for addressing their specific areas of conflict.

By choosing mediation, the parties talk to each other, rather than through their attorneys. This direct communication resolves conflicts in less time and is less costly than traditional litigation. When children are involved in a dispute, the mediation process encourages parents to focus on their children’s best interests and to maintain a relationship with their children while the parties design a parenting plan.

Each party has control in a mutual, decision-making process. Mutual expression of perceptions, values and emotions are allowed, thereby reducing damage to important family relationships. This enables the parties to tailor a personalized agreement which resolves their individual and unique concerns and reflects the best interests of their children.

An important goal for successful mediation is reaching a fair agreement. The parties decide what is fair, not the attorneys and not a judge.

Dr. Edward A. Dreyfus is a Clinical Psychologist, Divorce Mediator, and Life Coach, whose goal is to help people maximize their potential and achieve their goals. He is a licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist, and licensed marriage and family therapist. He has been in practice for over three decades with clinical specialties in sex therapy, divorce and relationship counseling, individual and group psychotherapy. The above article is excerpted from Dr. Dreyfus's book Keeping Your Sanity.

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April 28, 2006

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