Realities of Divorce: The Myth of the “Out-of-Nowhere” Divorce

While it’s not anything like a scientific study, we here at Gucciardo Family Law have worked closely with our fair share of Marriage, Family, and Child Therapists (MFCTs), and we’ve asked them a lot of questions about their experiences with married couples. One of the things we weren’t at all surprised to learn is that women tend to wait a long time before filing for divorce — but the men they’re divorcing have a surprising tendency to feel completely blindsided by the news that their wife is leaving them.

Fewer Men See Divorce Coming
According to a poll by AARP, roughly 35% of divorced men assay they never saw a divorce filing coming — compared to roughly 12% of divorced women. That’s nearly three times more men than women who feel like their spouse divorced them ‘out of nowhere’! So why is this? There are several theories, but before we get to that, let’s get back to that whole thing about women waiting to get divorced.

The Relationship as a Thing of Value
Last week, we talked about the ‘endowment effect,’ but more importantly, we talked about the fact that, in general, women are far more likely to see a relationship as an independent entity, separate from “me” and “my spouse.” Effectively, it adds an entity called “us” to the equation, and “us” is something worth fighting for (ideally), and it’s something that a married woman feels some degree of ownership over.

Because of that way of viewing the relationship, women have a tendency to feel responsible when their marriage isn’t giving them what they want. A woman tends to believe that if they change, they can realign the “us” such that they’ll get the relationship they really want. And because of that, women tend to put prolonged effort into adjusting their relationship before they finally give up on it.

So if the wife is putting so much long-term effort into turning the relationship they have into the relationship they deserve, why are men surprised when their longsuffering wife files for divorce?

What is the Sound of No Mouths Talking?
The reason why is both simple and devastating — it has to do with what people believe about quiet. In a healthy marriage, there is no one ‘correct’ amount of quiet — some couples talk constantly; others are perfectly comfortable quietly doing their own thing (or even doing something together without talking much). But in an unhealthy marriage, there is a decidedly ‘wrong’ amount of quiet…and it depends on which partner is unhappy.

Men have a tendency to be quiet when they’re unhappy, and doubly so when they’re angry. It may well be a cultural phenomenon, but at least in the US, men are raised with powerful social norms that tell them that it’s better to be silent than to “fuel the fire.” Women, on the other hand, tend to be noisy when they’re unhappy or angry — because after all, how are things supposed to get better if you don’t talk about them?

The problem arises when a woman falls silent not because she’s content, but because she has given up. Men tend to interpret the quiet as success — “She’s not complaining, so things must be OK!” — and thus, the divorce filing comes as a complete shock.

The truth is, according to our experience talking to our MCFT allies, that women who file for divorce have, on average, been unhappy for half of the duration of their marriage. It’s hard to call anything “out-of-nowhere” when it’s typically the result of years of history! The “sudden” divorce isn’t quite a complete myth — there definitely are cases where a major life change can make a spouse feel like their marriage is holding them back or keeping them down — but they are far more rare than we as a society believe.

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