Why Do Americans Get Divorced? For These Top Reasons

A new survey from Forbes provides scary statistics — and hopeful advice — regarding divorce.

Close-up of a young couple arguing at home in a hallway.
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We’ve all heard that 50% of marriages end in divorce. It turns out that stat is as outdated as parachute pants, sky-high hair, and formidable shoulder pads. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, divorce (and marriage) has been on the decline in recent years. Over the past decade, the divorce rate dropped from 16.3 marriages per 1,000 marriages in 2011 to just 14.9 in 2021. But while divorce rates seem to be leveling out divorce is a new reality. Why do couples decide to cal it quits? A new survey from Forbes dives into the top reasons why.

To determine why marriages fail, Forbes surveyed 1,000 Americans who are in the process of divorcing or who are already divorced. They found that 73% of divorces are initiated by only one spouse and that the majority of marriages that end in divorcedissolve early — between years three and seven. (Of those who got divorced quickly — defined here as divorce within the first year of marriage — 59% of them said it was due to incompatibility.)

According to Raiford Dalton Palmer, a Chicago-based divorce attorney and author of I Just Want This Done, it’s fairly uncommon for the decision to divorce to be mutual. “It's rare that you find a joint filing. It's most common that somebody wants a divorce more than the other person. They want it, the other person doesn't, and eventually, they come to grips with it. I always talk about an emotional bridge,” Palmer explained to Fatherly. “Somebody's usually much farther across than the other person — they've thought about the divorce for a while, sometimes a long time before they made a decision.”

But why do so many marriages fail? And why do they tend to fail so early?

Of the Forbes survey respondents, 43% said lack of family support was the reason they divorced. Thirty-four percent of respondents divorced due to infidelity, and 31% due to incompatibility issues. Thirty-one percent of respondents said they experienced a lack of intimacy, and the same amount said there was too much conflict or arguing. Somewhat surprisingly, financial stress was cited as a factor by only 24% of respondents.

But, as Palmer explains, many of these factors are cumulative. For example, you can have a lack of compatibility that can be compounded by financial stress, or arguing and conflict related to lack of intimacy. “I've seen many, many couples where opposites attract... The problem is then they repel each other over the long haul because it's like a burr under your saddle,” he explained.

Couples reported the most conflict over career choices — 46% of respondents experienced this. Parenting differences amounted to 43% of conflict among divorced couples, and the same amount held true for household labor division. Finances was only an issue for 28% of couples.

The Forbes survey also highlights some signs of divorce — clues that your marriage might be headed for the rocks. The most common included not showing interest in a partner (48% of couples noticed this), 47% of respondents mentioned poor conflict resolution, 45% mentioned avoidance, 38% mentioned disrespectful attitudes and behaviors, 38% mentioned heightened criticism, and 33% mentioned poor communication.

Luckily for couples who may be struggling, more than 95% of survey respondents said their marriages could have been saved. Sixty-three percent said that if they’d understood the commitment more thoroughly before they married, their marriage outcomes would’ve been different, and 56% said they might not have divorced if they’d had a more thorough understanding of their spouse’s morals and values.

The takeaway from the survey is that communication is key — both before and during and maybe even after your marriage. Talk to your partner, get to know them, learn about their expectations and goals in life, and make sure they understand yours. Marriage as a societal expectation is losing steam, so today’s couples aren’t as pressured to find the perfect partner and start a family immediately upon reaching adulthood (the survey also looked at the top reasons people get married, and two of the top three were companionship and love). Use that time to learn about your partner and yourself before taking the plunge.