Marital separation is perceived by society as a first step to getting divorced. While it is true for some marriages, it’s not a rule of thumb for all of them. An increasing number of couples use the separation period to work on marriage problems and eventually reconcile.
At the same time, many spouses continue living apart for several years, unable to resolve marital issues, and have no intention to divorce.
Why do some spouses reconcile after separation while others proceed to divorce? The likelihood of family renewal is a combination of many factors.
By carefully examining the statistics on the separation of married couples, we will assess better the spouses’ chances of reuniting as a family after a break in their relationships.
Divorce and separation trends in the US
A study on divorce rates conducted by the National Center for Family & Marriage Research (NCFMR) shows a decline from 15.7 divorces per 1000 marriages in 2018 to 15.5 in 2019.
The total number of divorces fluctuated by state from the highest in New Mexico (23 per 1000 marriages) to the lowest in Maine (9.58). The percentage of first marriages disrupted by separation across the US was 19.7% for women and 17.3% for men aged 15-44.
Divorce and separation rates have declined mostly because fewer marriages are concluded throughout the US in general. Moreover, the marriage age increased to 28 for women and 30 for men, according to 2018 Census Bureau reports.
The decline in divorces can also be explained by the rising number of people who never get married. In 1960, only 9% of adults aged 25 and older were unmarried. In 2012, the figures changed to 23% for women and 17% for men.
The country has also experienced an increase in the so-called “gray divorces” (in couples aged 50 or older). Their number rose from 5 per 1,000 married people in 1990 to 10 in 2015, the National Center for Health Statistics reports.
Trial separation statistics and facts
Separation can be of two types: legal and informal. The latter is also referred to as controlled, psychological, or trial separation. Couples that go through a legal separation have to complete a specific court procedure. In trial separation, spouses do not divide assets or obtain court orders. The involvement of a lawyer even for mere consultations harms any chances of reconciliation.
Now, let’s look at some statistics. The data is taken from a survey by H. Wineberg published in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage. The percentage of women who reconciled after separation is 9.2% in total for current marriages.
40% of couples have tried to reunite during this period at least once.
More than one instance of reconciliation is also not uncommon. Two reconciliations were experienced by 50-60% of couples and three reconciliations by 30% of couples.
The separation’s duration is primarily short-term (1 week to 1 month) for childless women and long-term (1 month or longer) for women with children.
Interestingly, more than half of psychologically separated spouses consider staying apart a great option to resolve family issues and start building relationships from a more deliberate position.
In an Internet survey for couples going through separation conducted by the Department of Sociology at East Carolina University, 21.3% of women and 25% of men have been living with their spouses but considered separation.
In comparison, 53% of women and 66.6% of men were already separated for 7-10 months. More than two-thirds of respondents suggested taking a pause and working things out through counseling.
Effect of education and marital age on reconciliation
The chances of reconciliation depend on many factors. During the first marriage, the education level and age determine if a couple would save their marriage from dissolution. The renewal of relationships is more probable, while separation has not yet transitioned into divorce.
Reconciliation after divorce statistics shows that in 75% of couples, at least one spouse regrets having divorced within one year after the event, according to a study by Hawkins, A. published in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage.
Only 6% of couples get back together after the first marriage is dissolved.
The probability of the first marriage ending in separation and divorce depends on the spouses’ educational level. A Pew Research Center analysis reveals that women with a college education have an 8 in 10 chance to remain married after 20 years.
For women with a high school education level, this possibility is lower than 40%. The probability of divorcing after separation is the smallest for women without education or low income.
These figures also differ depending on the race. Educated Asian Americans have the highest chances to stay in a long-term marriage. Only 30% of them get separated or divorced after 20 years of marriage.
In contrast, African American women divorce in 67% of similar circumstances.
Age at first marriage negatively affects the reconciliation percentage (Wineberg’s survey). Women aged fewer than 19 have a 16.6% probability of reuniting a family, 19-20 years – 9.6%, 21-24 – 6.7%, and 25+ women reconcile in 3.5% of cases.
The importance of the separation’s length
The percentage of separations that end in divorce is relatively high, according to CDC research, and depends on the time spent apart. Among women aged 15-44 years, 51% get divorced after one year, 76% — after three years, and 84% — after five years of living apart.
However, the given figures do not automatically mean that 16% of couples reconcile after five years. The longer spouses put their relationship on pause, the lower the probability of their reunion.
A model of structured separation proposed by Dr. David Hale from the University of Louisiana at Monroe suggests that the separation time shouldn’t end too soon. Ideally, a period for resolving the issues between spouses is 2-6 months.
However, if the time spent apart is too long, spouses may alienate from each other and deepen their emotional distance to such an extent that it would be impossible to get back together.
National Health Statistics reports that a median time for transition from separation to divorce is roughly 9-19 months for women and 7-18 months for men. After one year, the probability of separation resulting in divorce is 59% (men) and 44% (women).
Other factors affecting the reconciliation
The percentage of separated couples who reconcile is approximately 13% and varies among different social groups depending on several factors. They include the reason why spouses decide to live apart, financial and child-related issues, and other concerns.
One of the main reasons for couples to come together after living apart is children. Their welfare is paramount for many couples. Children are very vulnerable to changes in their home environment.
NCBI Studies show that a child living in a disrupted family has lower GPAs and experiences health problems (22% probability in single-parent families compared to 12% in nuclear ones).
“Clinging behavior, nightmares, and difficulties going to bed are some of the symptoms which can indicate the state of mind of a child at the time of a family break-up,” says E. Dowling, a consultant clinical psychologist.
To minimize adverse effects, both parents should be present equally in their day-to-day lives. The need to provide a child with stability is a strong incentive for couples to reunite.
Married parents also tend to get back together to regain financial stability. Results of research conducted by Brookings show that only 8% of married parents live in poverty.
This figure is three times higher for solo parents (27%). Staying apart can become very costly for each parent, making them find a way to reconcile.
Reasons for separation
The most common reason for a marriage disruption is not infidelity, as one might think. It comes second after the lack of commitment.
A survey by the NCBI published a statistical report with the following results:
- Lack of love and commitment – 75%
- Infidelity – 59.6%
- Conflict and arguing – 57.7%
- Young age at marriage – 45.1%
- Financial problems – 36.7%
The reason for separation and the capability to eliminate it affects the chances to reconcile. Some conflicts can be resolved during the cooling-off period, while others can’t.
“Compatibility doesn't determine the fate of a marriage; how you deal with the incompatibilities does,” believes A. Naskar, a neuroscientist and celebrated public speaker on mental wellness topics.
Lack of attention and commitment, for instance, can be corrected if the spouses are willing to acknowledge the problem and try to resolve it. As for infidelity or abusive behavior, it is unlikely that spouses reconcile unless a guilty spouse changes their unhealthy habits.
Chances to rebuild a family largely depend on the spouses’ arrangements about their budget while they are on a break. The expenses may change, especially for those individuals who earn less than their partner.
For instance, poorly educated women have a shorter period of separation before they reconcile with their spouses. 35.7% of women having less than 12 years of education negotiate after one week, and 39.3% — during the first month (Wineberg’s survey).
Compare these figures to 20% and 25% respectively for women with 16+ years of education. The need for financial stability can explain it.
Decreased living standards may play a crucial part in the spouses’ decision to start living as a family once again. Definitive financial resolution (who pays for what) is a must for spouses who plan to reconcile in the future.
Usually, when couples decide to take a break, they mostly learn to be apart, which doesn’t improve their relationship. Counseling helps spouses to find problem spots in their marriage and work on them during the sessions and independently.
Such an option is not mandatory to save a marriage, especially when the spouses are emotionally mature to resolve their conflicts by themselves. But in any case, they both need to work hard to rebuild their marriage.