Dating & Relationships

What Does (And Doesn’t) Predict Divorce, According To Science

October 23, 2017 by Justin Lehmiller


Social scientists have long been interested in the factors that predict divorce. Over the years, they’ve identified a number of things that seem to increase the odds of a couple dissolving their marriage; however, the evidence hasn’t always been consistent across studies, with some effects being more reliable than others. In this article, we’ll review some of the most interesting findings from this area of research.

· Scientists once thought that living together before marriage was a major risk factor for divorce. In the early 2000s and before, study after study found support for this idea and dubbed the phenomenon “the cohabitation effect.” However, this effect appears to be on the wane. In fact, as cohabitating before marriage has become more widespread, this effect has actually disappeared! So, while living together before marriage used to be a predictor of divorce, it isn’t in the modern world.

· Though cohabitation doesn’t predict divorce anymore, research has found that age does—specifically, the age at which a couple moves in together or gets married. The earlier a couple does this, the greater their odds of later divorce.

· A couple of studies have suggested that porn use is a risk factor for divorce; however, all of this research (see here and here) is plagued by the “chicken and egg” problem, meaning we don’t know which came first. In other words, is porn a cause of relationship problems, or is it a symptom of being unhappy with one’s relationship? We know that porn can hurt relationships in some cases, such as when one partner uses it compulsively; at the same time, though, there are a lot of studies suggesting that porn can actually be good for relationships, such as when couples start using it together in order to spice things up. In short, there’s reason to be skeptical of claims that porn necessarily destroys marriages.

· Perhaps not surprisingly, infidelity is a pretty reliable predictor of divorce. In other words, when someone in a relationship cheats, the odds of their relationship ending go up. However, many relationships do survive infidelity and, while rare, some actually end up stronger as a result.

· Data from the National Survey of Family Growth has found that divorce is linked to a number of demographic variables, including religious background and education level. Specifically, those who have religious affiliations and who are more highly educated tend to have longer-lasting marriages. These data also reveal that divorce risk is linked to race/ethnicity. For example, African American women seem to have much higher odds of early divorce than Asian American women.

· Lastly, study after study has found that divorces tend to run in families. In other words, children whose parents divorced have a much higher risk of getting divorced as adults. Interestingly, new research suggests that there may be a genetic reason for this, in light of data showing that people’s odds of divorce are only related to the divorce histories of their biological relatives, not their adopted relatives. The thought here is that we are genetically predisposed to certain personality traits, and that certain traits—namely high neuroticism (emotional instability) and low constraint (impulsiveness)—increase the likelihood of divorce. Learn more about this fascinating line of research here.

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[1] Jack, G. S., Garraway, I., Reznichek, R., & Rajfer, J. (2004). Current treatment options for penile fractures. Reviews in Urology, 6, 114-120.

[2] Barros, R., Schulze, L., Ornellas, A.A., Koifman, L., & Favorito, L.A. (2017). Relationship between sexual position and severity of penile fracture. International Journal of Impotence Research, 29, 207-209.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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