Marital Separation Alternative to Divorce for Poor Couples

A recent study from Ohio State University suggests that married couples who undergo long-term separations generally appear to be those who can't afford to divorce.  Researchers found that about 80 percent of all respondents who went through a marital separation ultimately divorced, most within three years.  What happened to the remaining 20 percent offers insight into marriage law economics and culture.

According to the study, "About five percent attempted to reconcile. But, 15 percent of separations didn't lead to divorce or reconciliation within 10 years. Couples in these long-term separations tended to be racial and ethnic minorities, have low family income and education, and have young children.  'Long-term separation seems to be the low-cost, do-it-yourself alternative to divorce for many disadvantaged couples,' said Dmitry Tumin, co-author of the study and a doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State University. 'Separation may not be their first choice, but they may feel it is their best choice.'"  Read the August 19, 2012 article entitled Marital Separations an Alternative to Divorce for Poor Couples at the Science Blog here.

These results will be presented at the 107th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.  The study involved 7,272 people from across the country who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79 - a nationally representative sample of men and women aged 14 to 22 in 1979), and who were married at some point. These study participants were surveyed every year up to 1994 and every other year since then, with the Ohio State researchers following them through 2008, conducting the Human Resource Research for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "The results of this study showed that 49 percent of participants left their first marriage during the course of the NLSY79 interviews, with 60 percent of that group having gone through a marital separation. About 80 percent of these separations ended in divorce. The average length of a first separation was three years for those who ended up divorcing, nine years for respondents who were still separated as of the most recent interview, and two years for those who reunited with their spouse."

People who separated and did not divorce had very different profiles from people who divorced immediately.  "Almost 75 percent of those who remained separated, or who separated and then reunited, were black or Hispanic. Those who remained separated were more likely than those who divorced to have a high school or lower education."   Many participants who did not divorce did so for economic reasons. Compared to people who divorced, those who separated without divorcing also tended to have more children, the study found. "Those with young children may find it difficult to support themselves and their children if they divorce. Divorce may not protect them because their spouse may be unwilling or unable to provide financial support..."

One surprising finding was that study participants' religious background was not associated with whether they chose separation or divorce, or whether they reunited after a separation. "We thought that people with certain religious backgrounds that discourage divorce, like Catholicism, might be more likely to separate rather than divorce, but we did not find that after other factors are taken into account." 

Trends that emerged include:

- The number of people who choose separation seems to be declining, but the time spent in separation seems to be increasing.

- Both of these trends may be explained by the increasing availability of "no-fault" divorces for the generation of young adults in this study.

- No-fault divorces reduced or eliminated separation as a prerequisite for divorce. That means people who have long-term separations now may not have the financial or social resources to divorce.

"Tough economic times are likely to make these trends continue... Long-term separation may continue to be the norm for the disadvantaged unless they can see a better alternative, both in terms of spousal availabilities and economic independence."

This study says some significant things about marriage and family stability.  The law makes it easier to divorce; unfortunately faith has little bearing on a person's divorce decision; children may cause couples to avert divorce; finances are better preserved in marriage than divorce; marriage partners may realize that economic support is better maintained in marriage than awarded in divorce.   

What does this mean for family restoration?  A rush to divorce is never good for marital, family or societal stability, and never furthers family restoration.  Allowing one's faith to inform one's divorce decision, however, is not well practiced, if at all.  People of faith are not leading on family restoration.  And finally, many realize it is still about the money.  Further research bears this out.  Sociological researchers Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher have written extensively on this in their book, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better off Finaincially. 

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Description: The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better off FinanciallySeparation can be a helpful alternative for troubled marriages, as recent research suggests.  Faith can inform those decisions, and can even bring about a restorative process to a fragmented family.

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