people want to talk about. After all, ending a marriage can launch you into painful feelings of failure, disappointment, stress, and regret. While most people do recover from a divorce, the process can take a toll on your health as you face an expensive and lengthy legal process, move out of your home, renegotiate your role as a co-parent (if you have kids), divide up your social network, and rebuild your sense of self without your partner.
While the overall divorce rate fell 18% from 2008 to 2016, divorce remains an everyday reality: About 40% of marriages end in dissolution, and around 1 million couples cut the cord every year, per a 2015 study in Psychosomatic Medicine.
While every marriage ends for a variety of reasons (which may differ depending on which partner you ask), the “why” behind a divorce can often be traced back to the same fundamental issues that end any relationship, from poor communication styles to a loss of trust in the wake of betrayal.
When you or your partner begins to see your marriage in a primarily negative light, you’re headed for trouble, says Shirin Peykar, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Sherman Oaks, CA. It can eventually become impossible to imagine your marriage improving, which in turn makes you feel hopelessness and more apt to dismiss, minimize, or even reframe positive interactions as negative, she explains.
So, whether you’re worried about a seven-year itch, feeling disrupted by empty nest syndrome, or simply feel like you’re growing apart, it helps to know what it takes to make a marriage last as well as what might bring yours down. Read on for nine of the most common reasons married couples end up calling it quits, according to relationship experts—and real women who have been there.
1. A lack of love and affection
Can’t remember the last time you said “I love you” or held your partner’s hand? In a survey of 2,371 divorcees, nearly half blamed a lack of love and intimacy, making it the most common reason for ending a marriage, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy.
“In general, a lack of passion is a sign that your marriage is in serious trouble,” says Terry Gaspard, a licensed clinical social worker and author of The Remarriage Manual. “Emotional and sexual intimacy go hand in hand, and without these elements, couples will often drift apart because they don’t feel connected.”
“My first husband was basically a good person, but he was emotionally unavailable. Over time, I realized that feeling lonely in the context of a marriage wasn’t healthy for me, so I decided to get a divorce.” —Carol D., 64
2. Marrying too young
While it might not be the first thing you think of, marrying young is a well-established risk factor for divorce. Case in point: Couples who got married as teens in the 1970s and 1980s were twice as likely to end up getting a divorce compared to those who married at later ages, per an article in The Journals of Gerontology.
Sometimes, the pressure to tie the knot at an arbitrary milestone (like after graduation or before 30) or the desire to have the Pinterest-perfect wedding can push young couples into committing to the wrong person, says Andrea Liner, Psy.D. a licensed clinical psychologist and owner of Flux Psychology in Denver, Colorado. As you mature, you might find that your relationship isn’t stable, you’re not as well-matched as you thought, or other options look more attractive.
“I started dating my husband when I was only 19 years old. He was there for me when I was severely injured in a car crash and when my mother died, and I came to rely on him for everything. But as you age, you change. In our last year of marriage, we started going to clubs with much younger friends—something I had never done because we started dating so young. When I asked to go out on a girl’s night without him, I noticed the way other guys treated me and looked at me, and I wanted that passion from my husband. As much as we loved each other, it just wasn’t there. What I later came to realize is that we had an overly co-dependent relationship, and it was only fair to the both of us if we separated.” —Melissa B., 51
3. Differing needs in the bedroom
Maybe your partner wants an open marriage (and you definitely don’t), your sex drives are mismatched, or you’ve discovered they’re really into something that doesn’t turn you on in the slightest. No matter the issue, sexual incompatibilities can drive a wedge between you and your partner. And if you can’t come to an agreement or compromise, one of you might end up seeking satisfaction or comfort outside your marriage or decide that divorce is the only way forward, says Peykar.
“We loved each other but our marriage was far from easy. I found out over a year and a half into our marriage that he had been watching gay porn for the majority of the time we were married and wanted to be with men. He wanted to try marriage counseling, but we both agreed that sexuality is part of who you are, so there wasn’t really anything to counsel. I didn’t want an open marriage or to be cheated on and I knew he needed to live his truth, so I filed for divorce. Signing those papers was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do to date, but I’m stronger now than I was before or during my marriage.” —Katie W., 28
“When one or both partners go outside of the relationship to get their needs met, whether emotional or sexual, this can doom a marriage,” says Gaspard. “It’s very difficult to get trust back once a partner feels betrayed, and it’s even more challenging to restore trust after someone has had a long-term affair rather than a fling.”
In a 2013 study in Couple & Family Psychology, over half of the 104 divorcees interviewed said infidelity was a major contributing factor in their decision to split—and many said it marked a critical turning point in an already-deteriorating marriage.
“My marriage ended after six months when I caught my husband sleeping with my now ex-best friend for the third time. I found out what was going on when I read messages they’d sent each other on his tablet when he wasn’t home. While I forgave him, I could never completely trust him after that. When he asked for a divorce, I agreed to it.” —Cassie L., 39
“When I discovered my ex-husband was having an affair with an office intern, he tried to deny it for several months by accusing me of being jealous and insecure. I knew it was over when I listened to him chat with her over the baby monitor that I’d placed in his home office. While many people suggested that I just ‘look the other way’ until the relationship fizzled out, I knew I could never be ‘that wife.’” —Sheila B., 61
We all have pet peeves, and it’s normal to have a mix of positive and negative feelings towards your partner throughout your marriage. But when you begin to see them as beneath you, that’s a major red flag. Feeling contempt for your partner (and showing it through eye rolls, put downs, sneering, and name-calling) is the most destructive predictor of divorce, says Peyhar. The message is that you don’t respect them or appreciate what they have to offer, which erodes any remaining love or admiration.
It’s a vicious cycle: Rather than sharing your frustrations and needs with each other, you always see your partner as the problem and, as such, end up playing the blame game. “When you feel attacked, angry, or hurt, you then counterattack your partner to defend yourself and gain a sense of control or release feelings,” says Peyhar. “These interactions become missed opportunities for connection, understanding, and empathy.”
“My husband and I were married for 15 years. We fought all the time. I thought he was judgmental, he thought I wasn’t opinionated enough. I thought he was harsh, he thought I was too sensitive. We literally argued over Nordstrom’s closing time of all things for hours one night. It was ridiculous. Ultimately, we allowed the need to be right about everything take over the need to love each other. After seeing three therapists, we finally decided it was time for a divorce.” —Lisa Y., 48
6. Emotional or physical abuse
“In my practice, I see a lot of narcissistic abuse,” says Peykar. A few signs you might be in an abusive relationship: Your partner shows a need to control you, demand that you fulfill their needs (but ignore yours), fail to take responsibility for their side of the relationship (by blaming you), gaslight you (by making you question your own judgment and conception of reality), and explode in angry outbursts, tearing you down or even physically or sexually hurting you, she says.
Unfortunately, these relationships tend to come with a constant cycle of high highs and low lows, which can be confusing and keep you hooked for a long time. When you do realize what’s going on, it’s a common experience to feel intensely alone, depressed, anxious, and helpless, says Peykar. These marriages also often end in infidelity—when the narcissistic partner suddenly moves on and leaves the relationship. (For additional help and support, dial The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or the National Dating Abuse Helpline at 1-866-331-9474.)
“I was married to a man who right from the beginning controlled me. He made me wear makeup (even though I never did before) and picked out my clothes (like dresses I’d never want to wear). He kept me separated from my family and friends, and degraded me at every turn. Then, he started physically hurting me and threatened to harm my family if I ever left him. I stayed for two years because I thought I wasn’t worthy or good enough to leave. Then one day, the fear of staying became greater than the fear of leaving. I packed my things in garbage bags and left while he was at work.” —Joanne I., 62
7. Drug or alcohol abuse
In one study, substance abuse was cited as a reason for a third of divorces. If one or both partners are struggling with addiction, it’s a huge stress on your marriage and family. When you find you’re more in love with your idea of who your partner could be (rather than who they are right now), you’re much more likely to end your marriage, says Liner.
Many partners end up deciding there’s no choice but to file for divorce when their partner spirals out of control, which is why it’s a must to seek rehab and therapy if you want to save your marriage. In this case, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national hotline can help connect you with the right treatment program.
“My husband got into the wrong crowd and started doing drugs and drinking. He would steal money from me, take my car, and leave for days. I had to kick him out a couple of times, and looking back, I wish I’d never let him back in because of all of the emotional damage he did to me. Finally, I decided that I wasn’t going to let him drag me down with him, and I decided to get a divorce.” —Susan H., 60
8. Financial stress
It’s easy to avoid talking about money before you get married—it’s not a fun conversation to have, especially if you’re burdened with a lot of debt or you’re not proud of your current salary. But money (or a lack of it) can be a major stressor in a marriage.
Sadly, having less wealth is, in itself, a risk factor for divorce, and disagreements over how to manage funds or a high-debt situation could lead to more arguments and tension. What’s more, financial infidelity (lying to your partner about money, credit, or debt) could also damage your sense of trust in each other, another knock against a healthy marriage, says Gaspard. For this reason, having more conversations about money (even about hypothetical situations that haven’t yet occurred, like what would happen if you lost your job or a recession hit) could help you avoid major conflict in the future, adds Liner.
“After 32 years of marriage, my breaking point was when my husband and I lost our home to foreclosure. I’d signed for a $26,000 governmental loan to save it, but he couldn’t stop lying to me and spending his money on other women. I had to move into an apartment at the age of 57, and I’m still struggling. I realized I wanted a divorce when I started loving myself again and decided that I’d never let a man treat me like that again.” —Sharon N., 61
9. Growing apart
It’s a common but no less painful experience: You just don’t feel connected to your partner anymore. In a 2012 study of 886 parents who were getting divorced, over 55% said the reason for their divorce was “growing apart.”
As you go through life together, growth and change are sure to come, but minor and major shifts alike (career changes, loss and grief, new hobbies and social groups, even starting therapy) can become a catalyst for distance to grow between you, says Liner. That’s why it’s essential for you to communicate through these times to make sure you’re growing together rather than apart.
“Over 18 years of marriage, my husband and I endured the typical ups and downs as we built our careers and raised two children. But then I had back-to-back health crises that seemed to push him to the edge. I broke my pelvis, and then a year later, I underwent surgery and six months of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. As I was recovering, I felt my husband growing further away but convinced myself that when I felt better, I would make everything OK. I did not get the chance. Less than a year after I finished treatment, I found out he was having an affair. Over the years, we’d worked through several rough patches together, but ultimately, we gradually grew apart.” —Susan S., 56