The 8 Top Reasons for Divorce: Why Marriages Fail After 5 Years

These factors can doom a marriage before it’s even had a chance to start.

Originally Published: 
shattered glass reflection of a married couple in a story about top reasons for divorce

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the crushing realization that, sheesh, happily-ever-after takes a lot of work. A few years into marriage, many couples find their relationship faltering. Nearly 20 percent of married couples divorce within the first five years — but this is not to say that mutual affection doesn’t exist between couples who find themselves in a failed marriage. The causes of divorce are varied and complex, but the top reasons for divorce tend to fall across common themes.

According to those who have a front seat to many a marriage’s demise — counselors, divorce lawyers, and therapists — certain patterns emerge. Here are seven of the top reasons for divorce, straight from the experts.

1. Undiscussed Debt

Finances, in general, can be a source of contention in marriage, whether it’s in the first five years or the next 20. However, student loans, something many young couples are saddled with, can prove to be a large burden in a marriage’s early stages.

“At the beginning of a romance, student loan debt obligations don’t come up,” says Devon Rood Slovensky, a divorce and family lawyer from Roanoke, Virginia. “However, once the honeymoon phase is over, the reality that loans have to be paid back, and that it can take time for an educational investment to pay off, comes to the forefront. When a couple starts talking about buying a house or having children, student loan debt can cause feelings of resentment and overwhelm.”

2. Believing That Marriage Is a Cure-All

Often people make the leap to marriage without giving a great deal of thought about the person they’ll be living with for the rest of their lives. “Deciding who to marry is the most important decision most people will make in their life,” says lawyer Paul Mitassov. “Yet many people do less due diligence than a gas station hiring a part-time janitor. Willful blindness does not end well.”

Then there’s the very common idea that marriage will fix everything, and unexamined, this fantasy is a top reason for divorce. “One of the biggest misconceptions I see is people believing that marriage is some sort of magic pill,” says Libby James, an attorney in Charlotte. “That once they are married, the annoying habits of their partner does magically go away. A great example is someone who is marrying a wild party animal. The tendency and compulsion to go out and get blasted doesn’t go away with the donning of a band of metal. It’s still there. If something annoys you before marriage, be not deceived — it will still be there after marriage.” To prevent their marriage from failing, couples have to work at it, like anything else.

3. Not Speaking Up

Marriage, and life, can be hard. And if one person or the other feels as though they’re taking on too much of the burden, that can lead to discord. This is doubled when that person feels the need to keep those burdens quiet. “More often than not, when the other party hears about how the burdened party feels, the response is ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ or ‘I would have helped had I known,’” says James. “So, speak up. If you feel like you are drowning, say something. Let your partner know.” Preventing divorce has a lot to do with dealing with the little things when they happen.

4. Troubles With In-Laws

Overbearing in-laws are something of a marital cliché, but if a partner isn’t prepared for the type of relationship their spouse wants to have with his or her parents or the kind of relationship his or her parents want to have with them, they could be in for a rude awakening once the reality of marriage sets in. This is a top reason for divorce.

“When you’re dating, you’re kind of treading lightly. You’re to some degree walking on eggshells, especially with family,” says Doreen Olson, a family law attorney, and a partner at Meyer, Olson, Lowy & Meyers. “So you don’t really state your opinion or get involved in things like that. But when it’s happening to you every day in your new married life? I’ve seen that cause a lot of friction.”

5. Religious Differences

When couples are dating, religion isn’t always brought up or talked about. Holidays are often spent apart and family traditions don’t play as much of a role in the couple’s daily lives. However, once things become more serious, religion and tradition tend to become more important and, if both couples aren’t on the same page, trouble can arise. “I’ve seen a lot of younger couples where religion has become a significant issue in their marital relationship,” says Olson. Many top reasons for divorce boil down to lack of communication, and this is a particularly big one.

6. Not Staying Connected

Life can get in the way of marriage very easily, and everything from work to kids to outside commitments can lead to a very quick disconnect in married couples, especially in the early years when the frivolity of courtship gives way to the reality of day-to-day living. “The couple can morph from a marital relationship to ships passing in the night without warning, just in an effort to keep up with the family’s schedule,” says James. This is one of the top reasons for divorce. “It is this drifting apart that I see most often in couples.” Too often marriages fail not because of one explosive event, but a slow dissolution that happens when couples aren’t intentional about connecting with one another.

7. Differing Life Plans and Divorce

Just like anything else in life, if you want to keep your marriage from failing, you’d better have a plan, and it had better be one that you both agree on. “Wildly different plans for the new family do not end well,” cautions Mitassov. He recommends that, before marrying, couples should come to an agreement on important things like how many children they will have, finances, religion, education, and, of course, how much contact they’ll have with in-laws.

8. Dispute Over Family Responsibilities

Disagreements are part of any relationship, but choosing how to raise a family and run a household can reveal contradictory non-negotiables. Family responsibilities can include things like who pays which bills or day-to-day care tasks for the kids. For example, if a parent feels like children should have chores or a set bedtime while another parent doesn’t, it can cause a real strain in a relationship. A couple who doesn’t agree on a particular parenting style or how to manage their child and home care responsibilities may find themselves feeling uncomfortably incompatible. A spouse who believes in more traditional gender roles may butt heads with a spouse who wants everything to be more even. These aspects of everyday life are fundamental to family dynamics, so sharp differences can end in divorce.

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