We looked at the best studies in the field and settled on this list of the top eight causes of divorce. Then we ranked those causes by how often study participants mentioned them as an important factor in their divorce.
As you consider these divorce causes, keep in mind that participants often chose more than one. That makes sense, as relationships and divorce are as complicated as people themselves.
In several studies, lack of commitment emerged as the number one cause of divorce. But what exactly does it mean? An affair? Closing down communication? Not working toward goals? Lack of commitment could be perceived in any of these. It's a concept that is hard to define and can take many forms. No surprise, then, that so many people highlight it as the main driver of their divorce.
Actually explaining something as weighty as divorce can be really hard, which is maybe why we often reach for simple phrases like "We just grew apart," and "We just weren't compatible." But these aren't just platitudes. Up to 55% of people point to some variation of incompatibility as the reason why their marriage ended. According to the studies, this encompasses factors such as a lack of shared values (including religion), marrying too young, and sexual difficulties.
About half of divorcees in several studies attributed poor communication as the main cause of their separation. While it's not hard to recognize when you're arguing too much with your spouse, or not talking to them at all, these kinds of communication issues can often worsen other problems in the relationship. Even if fights aren't frequent or intense, repeated arguments on the same topic might be symptomatic of a communication problem. Here, couple's therapy might be a way forward.
Adultery was a reason for divorce in anywhere from 20% to 60% of responses across the multiple studies we reviewed. Something that could help explain the wide range is some interviewees and not others considering an affair to be the last straw after other marital problems.
In some studies, 40% of divorcing couples cited financial problems, particularly how their ex handled money, as a major reason for their split. (Lower-income couples were more likely to attribute their divorce to financial incompatibility.) Financial incompatibility can take many forms, including one spouse keeping money secrets, a spouse making large purchases without telling the other, and a couple not being able to have normal conversations about finances.
A range of 10% to 35% of respondents across multiple studies said they decided to divorce because of their spouse's drinking or drug problems. It's a startling statistic when you consider it compares to money problems as a cause of divorce, and in some cases, even surpasses adultery. (If you suspect your spouse could have a substance-use disorder, see some common warning signs.)
Domestic violence was noted as an important reason for divorce by between 15% and 25% of people in various studies. In fact, more than a third of participants in a study focusing on older divorced couples listed verbal, emotional, or physical abuse as one of the three main reasons for their divorce. In a national study, 42% of women cited domestic abuse as an important factor in their divorce—compared to only 9% of men.
Learn about the effect of spousal abuse on divorce, the warning signs of relationship abuse, and how to protect yourself when leaving an abusive relationship. (For immediate help, try the National Domestic Violence Hotline and/or RAINN, and keep in mind that your abuser could be monitoring you in any number of ways as you look for help.)
In some studies, around 20% of participants pointed to conflicts over family responsibilities as an important reason for their divorce, with at least one study showing women to be significantly more likely to perceive or acknowledge this issue as a divorce cause than men. These family responsibility conflicts have to do with issues like how to raise children, child care responsibilities, and other family or household obligations.
What causes divorce? Ultimately, any of the issues above—and perhaps even other ones that don't fit squarely into the categories in our list.
The vast majority of marriages will probably face at least one of the problems on our list at some point. But some problems don't have to lead to divorce if both spouses are willing to work together.
For the full context of our research, see here.