Key Study: Why do people get divorced? (Scott et al. 2013)

Travis DixonHuman Relationships

It's a simple question without an easy answer: why do people get divorced?

Understanding what makes some marriages work and others fail is the life’s work of many psychologists. This simple study uncovers at least 5 common reasons why couples might divorce. 

Conflict, arguing and infidelity (cheating) are just some of the reasons why people get divorced.

It’s no surprise that getting divorced has massive negative consequences – psychological, physical, emotional and even financial. Divorced individuals are more at risk for substance abuse, depression and poor overall health. Conflict in a marriage and divorce also has negative consequences for kids, as they generally do worse at school, have more depression and anxiety and partake in more high risk behaviours (e.g. drinking and other drugs).

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This is why psychologists are trying to understand why couples get divorced. Like all problems, it can only be solved by understanding the root causes. Similarly, if common problems in marriages can be understood, perhaps premarital training programmes can be designed to reduce the chances of divorce. This is exactly the goal of the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Programme (PREP) programme. This is a 12 hour programme that teaches “…appropriate communication and conflict skills, and provides information to help couples evaluate expectations, understand relationship commitment, and enhance positive connections through friendship and fun (Ragan, Einhorn, Rhoades, Markman, & Stanley, 2009).

The following study used previous research (Johnson et al. 2002) to  develop a questionnaire on 11 common reasons why people get divorced. They wanted to see which of these 11 relationship characteristics were most frequently cited as the reason for divorce. It was quite unique because all participants had taken part in the same premarital programme (the PREP programme) so they also wanted to assess its effectiveness. OK, so I guess since they got divorced we know it wasn’t that effective, but perhaps the results could help them make it better.

Find more teaching resources in our Love and Marriage support pack.

Reasons for Divorce (Scott et al. 2013)


This study had two aims. Firstly, it wanted to understand the common reasons for divorce. Secondly, it wanted to find out if these reasons were well covered in the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Programme (PREP).


  • A total of 52 divorced participants took part in the study (there were 18 ex-couples and 16 individuals of whom their ex-partner couldn’t participate).
  • All participants attended the PREP course in 1996 with their partner before getting married. All had then divorced at some point between ’96 and the time of the study’s data collection 14 years later (in 2010).
  • Data was gathered through phone interviews lasting about 30 mins.
  • Quantitative and qualitative data was gathered in the interviews.
    • Quantitative:
      • Participants were read out individually the list of possible reasons and asked to state “Yes” or “No” if they thought they contributed to the divorce.
      • They were asked if there was a “final straw”¹ reason for the divorce.
      • Also asked if they felt like they had worked hard enough in the relationship (Yes/No) and also if they felt their partner had worked hard enough (Yes/No).
    • Qualitative:
      • For the reasons Yes/No for divorce, they were also asked to talk about how the issue might have progressed (e.g. gotten worse over time).
      • They were asked for feedback on the PREP programme.
  • Participants were paid $50 for their participation and the methods were approved by an ethics committee.

Results: I. Top 5 Reasons for Divorce

The findings were very consistent with Johnson et al.’s 2002 survey study in Oklahoma. According to the responses in this study’s Yes/No questions, here are the Top 5 Reasons for Divorce:

Top 5 Reasons for Divorce


Total Individual Responses (52) At least one in the couple Both couples agreed
Lack of commitment 75.0% 94.4% 70.6%
Infidelity or extramarital affairs 59.6% 88.8% 31.3%
Too much conflict or arguing 57.7% 72.2% 53.8%
Getting married too young 45.1% 61.1% 27.3%
Financial problems 36.7% 55.6% 50.0%

Interestingly, you’ll see that in almost 90% of the cases at least one partner said it was because of having an affair. However, only 30% of couples did both mention this was a contributing factor.

For the full list, see the table in the original study here.

Infidelity and too much arguing are two key reasons why couples divorce.

II. Final Straws 

About 70% (68.6%) of the participants believed there was a “final straw.” Of the reasons given, these are the three most common:

  1. Infidelity (cheating) – 24%
  2. Domestic violence – 21.2%
  3. Substance abuse – 12.1%

While you might be surprised to see substance abuse and domestic violence listed here and not in the Top 5 earlier, they were #6 and #7 on the list respectively.

III. Who should have worked harder?

Around 70% of men and women believed that their ex-spouse who should have worked harder in the marriage (65.8% men, 73.8% women). However, only about 1/3 (31.6% men, 33.3% women) believed that they should have worked harder (Note: it was possible for them to answer Yes to both questions, that they and their partner should have worked harder).

Conclusions and Applications:

The qualitative data suggested that most couples found the PREP beneficial but that they forgot most of the training over time and that they didn’t apply it in their real-life situations. Also, some reasons for divorce, including the final straws, that were discussed by participants were not part of the PREP training so they might be included in the future (including infidelity, aggression or emotional abuse, and substance use).

It seems like there are common reasons for divorce, at least in the United States, but premarital training might not be that good at combating these.

Exam Tip: If you’re asked about “Explanations for why relationships may change or end,” you can simply summarize the five factors and their percentages in this study as one explanation. You could also explain the 3 common “final straws.”

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • The researchers themselves concede that this is a small sample and the possible applications should be “considered preliminary.” Why might the small sample size affect the validity of the results?
  • How can the differences in rates between individual responses and couple responses show the importance of communication in relationships?
  • When asking for the reasons for divorce, the researchers gave the reason and then asked if it was a contributing factor, Yes or No? How might this style of questioning influence the validity of the results?
  • Infidelity was a common reason, but it was only 1/3 of couples who both agreed with this. What are some possible explanations for these findings?
  • Almost 90% of the participants were white Americans. Can you explain one or more issues with generalizability based on this sample?

The data suggests that if you want to get married and stay married, perhaps it’s best to wait a little while and not get married too young, work on your communication to avoid fighting and arguing, work hard to avoid financial troubles and stay committed and faithful to the marriage. But perhaps we didn’t need a study to tell us that?


  • Johnson, Christine & Stanley, Scott & Glenn, N. & Amato, P. & Nock, S. & Markman, H.. (2002). Marriage in Oklahoma: 2001 baseline statewide survey on marriage and divorce. (Link)
  • Ragan EP, Einhorn LA, Rhoades GK, Markman HJ, Stanley SM. Relationship education programs: Current trends and future directions. In: Bray JH, Stanton M, editors. Handbook of family psychology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell; 2009. pp. 450–462.
  • Scott, S. B., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Allen, E. S., & Markman, H. J. (2013). Reasons for Divorce and Recollections of Premarital Intervention: Implications for Improving Relationship Education. Couple & family psychology2(2), 131–145. (Link)

¹The term “final straw” refers to the old saying, “the final straw that breaks the camels back.” The analogy means that a camel might be able to carry lots of straw but then there’s just one little thing that sets it over the edge. A “final straw” in the general sense is when one little thing actually breaks or ends something major because of everything else that came before it. (Read more here in case I’ve explained it poorly).