The Last Straw— Three specific problems often become the breaking point in marriage

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Every marriage is unique and there are multifaceted factors that lead to divorce.

“There’s usually more than one reason a couple gets divorced,” says DivorceNet, “and those reasons are often intertwined. For example, people are more likely to have extramarital affairs when they’re experiencing other problems in their marriage, and communication problems exacerbate issues like money disputes.”

Researchers have long been interested in what causes marriages to break up. In numerous studies over the last several decades, which have directly asked divorced couples what drove them apart, similar marital issues came up again and again:

  • Lack of commitment
  • Too much conflict and arguing
  • Infidelity
  • Incompatibility and growing apart
  • Communication problems
  • Domestic violence
  • Getting married too young
  • Being inadequately prepared for marriage / Unrealistic expectations
  • Financial problems/disagreements about money
  • Substance abuse
  • Conflicts over domestic responsibility
  • Lack of support from family
  • Religious differences
  • Health problems

Across various studies, about three-quarters or more of the couples polled said “lack of commitment” was a reason for their split—nearly 85% in one study. Around half typically say that “communication problems” or “drifting apart” were at least partly to blame—about 40% rank financial issues among their big marital woes. Up to 70% say they were fighting too much. About 70% also say they felt unprepared for the realities of marriage. A surprising number—43%—say “lack of family support” was a significant problem.

But simple percentages don’t tell the whole story. Since most couples surveyed listed more than one reason for their marriage’s demise, the percentages across all the reasons given in the studies usually add up to well over 100%.

However, what consistently emerges in these surveys is that for troubled marriages, there is often one breaking point.

A recent Forbes analysis found that “Even when there are a variety of issues, people who dissolve their unions usually report there is one ‘final straw’ or tipping point that pushes them over the edge and causes them to decide to divorce. In fact, 69% of divorcing couples report this is the case.”

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, the last straw is a common saying that originates with a longer proverb, dating back to the mid-1700s, “It was the last straw that broke the camel’s back.”

It means that—seemingly small—bad, difficult, annoying, or painful things can pile on and pile on until one thing finally makes the whole load too much to bear. It refers to when you can no longer handle or accept a gradually worsened situation.

Among couples that left unhappy marriages due to a “final straw,” three main marital problems were most often cited:

  • Infidelity
  • Domestic violence
  • Substance abuse

“When there was a final straw,” says Forbes, “infidelity was the most common issue that ultimately prompted divorce, with 24% of couples reporting this as their final straw. Domestic violence was the ultimate cause of divorce for 21% of couples, and 12% said substance abuse was the deciding issue.”

But in researchers’ quest to understand what makes marriages fall apart, “[A] complicating factor that won’t surprise you is that couples often disagree about what caused their breakup,” DivorceNet says.

Forbes found that while infidelity, domestic violence, and substance abuse were the most commonly given final straws by at least one partner in divorced couples, “not a single couple reported the same deciding issue as the ultimate reason for the end of their marriage.”

In other words, unhappy spouses see the cause of their divorce—and these specific issues—very differently.

When it comes to infidelity, partners may have different views on what it is or what happened. One person’s one-time mistake may be another person’s absolute deal breaker. Or one spouse may feel they were driven into the arms of another by their partner’s emotional absence.

Similarly, a person married to someone deep in addiction may view the decline of the relationship through a very different lens than the addicted person. As the American Addiction Center explains, “A close relationship with an addicted partner can become a source of chaos, negativity, emotional upheaval, and even violence. Substance abuse can eventually destroy a couple by undermining trust, which weakens the bond between partners.”

Regarding domestic violence, DivorceNet points out, “In one national study, 42% of women—but only 9% of men—cited domestic violence as an important reason their marriage ended. That could reflect the fact that women are much more likely than men to suffer intimate partner abuse and that victims of abuse are more likely than abusers to see the behavior as the cause of divorce.”

If you are in danger, prioritize your health and safety above all. Seek support. Help is available through local organizations or the National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-7233.

And if you’ve reached your final straw and made the difficult decision to end your marriage, the caring and experienced family law attorneys at SFLG can talk to you about the dissolution process in your case, and guide you through the next steps toward reaching the best possible outcome.

By Debra Schoenberg

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