When a married couple chooses a long-term separation, rather than a divorce, it is most likely because they cannot afford a divorce, according to a nationwide study.
“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.”
Tumin conducted the study with Dr. Zhenchao Qian, professor of sociology at Ohio State.
Another surprising finding was that a couple’s 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,” said Tumin.
The study included 7,272 people across the U.S. who were part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 197, and who had been married at some point. The NLSY is a nationally representative sample of men and women aged 14 to 22 in 1979. Participants were surveyed every year up to 1994 and every other year since then. The study by Tumin and Qian followed the respondents through 2008.
Overall, about 80 percent of study respondents who went through a marital separation ultimately divorced, most within three years. About 5 percent tried to reconcile.
However, 15 percent of separations didn’t end in either divorce or reconciliation within 10 years. Couples in these prolonged separations tended to be racial and ethnic minorities, have young children and have low family income and education.
Furthermore, 49 percent of respondents had left their first marriage at some point during the NLSY interviews, with 60 percent having gone through a marital separation. About 80 percent of these separations ended in divorce.
The average length of a first separation was 3 years for those who ended up getting divorced, 9 years for respondents who were still separated as of the most recent interview, and 2 years for those who got back together.
The findings show that reconciliation after separation is often unsuccessful—half of those who reconciled were no longer married as of 2008.
People who chose divorce right away were similar to people who separated and then divorced, but people who separated and did not divorce had very different profiles, the researchers found.
Nearly 75 percent of respondents who remained separated, or who separated and then got back together, were black or Hispanic. Those who remained separated were more likely than those who divorced to have a high school or lower education.
“In every measure we had, including family background, income and education, those who remain separated are more disadvantaged than those who end up divorcing,” Qian said.
The study also found that those who separated without divorcing also tended to have more children, compared to those who divorced.
“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,” Qian said.
When the results of this study are compared to prior research, some trends appear, Tumin noted. The number of people who choose separation seems to be trending downward, but the time spent in separation seems to be increasing.
“Tough economic times are likely to make these trends continue,” Qian said.
“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.”
Source: Ohio State University