By Sarah Lutui and Alan J. Hawkins
The bottom-line first: A recent study investigated how individuals who have been thinking about divorce seek to repair their relationships. They found four distinct types of repair behaviors.
The divorce rate in the United States has been dropping; researchers now estimate that about 4-in-10 marriages will end in divorce. But the risks are still high. Researchers are keenly interested in divorce but oddly there isn’t a lot of attention to how individuals go about deciding to divorce or stay together. One interesting study shows that thinking about divorce is common, with a quarter of married couples (ages 25-50) having had recent thoughts about divorce and more than 50% having thought about divorce at some time. But this study also showed how divorce ideation is dynamic – it can come and go – and isn’t a sure sign that the relationship is broken and divorce is imminent.
When people are thinking about divorce, what do they do? Do they seek out help either privately or professionally? And are there recognizable patterns of help-seeking? A recent study investigated these questions with a nationally representative sample of 745 individuals thinking about divorce. They followed these individuals for a year to see how things changed or stayed the same for them.
Here are some key findings:
- The most common ways of seeking help are private repair behaviors, such as having a serious talk with your spouse (82%) and just working harder to try to solve the problem (81%). After that, the next most common set of repair behaviors is self-help resources, including things like reading a book (41%), browsing a website (45%), or just talking to others (44%). Seeking professional help is less common. About a third seek individual and/or couple counseling. Only about 15% participate in couple relationship education (CRE).
- Of course, people can do more than one kind of help-seeking activity. The researchers found four distinct patterns or types of help-seeking activity:
- The first type is intense seekers (6%). This was the smallest group in the study. The intense seekers tried almost all self-help and personal behaviors to repair their relationship and they also had high participation in professional help, as well. These couples had some of the most serious problems and highest levels of divorce ideation. But they also had the highest hope for their relationship from using these repair behaviors.
- The second type is minimal-private seekers (42%) and was the largest group in the study. This group of couples did not actively seek out much help for their relationship problems and if they did try any repair problems they were private activities. The kinds of problems they were experiencing were less serious, but most of them still had mixed feelings about still being married.
- The third type is moderate-fading seekers (14%) and this group was a little larger than the intense seekers. The majority of this group sought help online and also through self-help books. These behaviors diminished over time. About half of this group did seek professional help and after the repair attempts none of the couples had divorced (possibly because this group was the most religious).
- The last type in the study is private-sustained seekers (38%), the second largest group in this study. This group was very involved with personal repair behaviors but had low levels of seeking professional help. They tended to sustain these behaviors over the 1-year period of the study.
Different approaches and resources are needed to help couples thinking about divorce. How can relationship educators help? Here are some implications:
- Provide Private Educational Resources. Most individuals thinking about divorce seek help privately and don’t get professional help. They may benefit from some great in-person CRE programs, but they won’t take advantage of them. We need private educational resources for them. Online programs may be a good option. And web-based resources could help, such as Your Divorce Questions. We need to meet them where they are.
- Reach Out to Thinkers. This study found that those thinking about divorce seldom looked to CRE programs for help. Could relationship educators be doing a better job of reaching out to thinkers and designing their program so that they are welcome in their programs? Some educators, especially in religious settings, have tried to create intensive weekend programs especially for couples thinking about divorce, although the research reviewed here didn’t show a lot of people turning to the Church for help, and there isn’t a lot of research on the effectiveness of these kinds of programs. But we are not aware of many secular programs that are specifically designed for individuals thinking about divorce. Perhaps relationship educators could give more attention to these kinds of programs.
- Connect Participants with Discernment Counselors. When thinkers do come to CRE programs, there is a lot of potential benefit. But it also may be a good idea to encourage couples – especially those struggling with serious challenges – to seek out discernment counseling that is specifically designed to help couples get clarity about what direction they want to go. Discernment counseling was created to help couples who are considering divorce come to greater clarity and confidence about the direction to go. The focus is on which path to take, not directly on solving their relationship problems. Couples are presented with three different paths. The first path is the status quo path where the couples decide to continue the relationship as things have been. The second path is the divorce path and the third is the reconciliation This last path is where couples make the decision to take divorce off the table as an option for six months while doing couples therapy and see if they can increase the health of their marriage.5 Although couples may end up in divorce even after repair attempts, research does show that discernment counseling helps couples reach clarity and honesty before and after the divorce.
Different people seek out help in different ways. When relationship educators know the types of couples they might see and how they tend to seek out help, they will be able to help them better. By creating different resources, more couples will be helped.
 NVSS – Marriages and Divorces. (2021, February 25). Retrieved April 16, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/marriage-divorce.htm?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fnchs%2Fmardiv.html
 Hawkins, A. J., Galovan, A. M., Harris, S. M., Allen, S. E., Allen, S. M., Roberts, K. M., & Schramm, D. G. (2017). What are they thinking? A national study of stability and change in divorce ideation. Family Process, 56(4), 852–868. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1111/famp.12299
 Galovan, A. M., Hawkins, A. J., Harris, S. M., & Simpson, D. M. (2021). What are they doing? A national survey of relationship-repair behavior of individuals who are thinking about divorce. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. https://doi.org.10.1111/jmft.12480.
 Emerson, A. J., Harris, S. M., & Ahmed, F. A. (2020). The impact of discernment counseling on individuals who decide to divorce: Experiences of post‐divorce communication and coparenting. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1111/jmft.12463