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How Identity Shapes Divorce Decisions

By Steven M. Harris

As a marriage therapist who primarily works with couples on the brink of divorce and as a researcher interested in the divorce decision-making process, I am often amazed at the things that people consider when they are thinking about leaving a marriage. When people begin to contemplate exiting a marriage, it is not uncommon for them to reflect on how the decision to divorce or to stay married might impact their identity. Just like agreeing to marry or deciding to propose marriage to someone says something about who you are (“I’m the marrying type” or “I’m looking to settle down”), deciding to divorce probably says something about you, too.

As part of a larger study, we interviewed 30 married people who were in the middle of deciding whether or not to divorce. Among other things, we specifically asked them if the decision to divorce or to stay married said anything about them personally or if they thought it might say something about them in someone else’s mind. Here’s some of what they said.*


In most marriage ceremonies, the officiator declares that the union will last until the death of one of the partners. Perhaps because of this, a majority of the participants reported feeling like they would consider themselves a failure if their marriage ended in divorce. Some reported believing that others might think of them as failures if they were to get divorced. This was especially the case where there was no significant history of divorce in the participant’s family or there was a strong religious ethic against divorce. This was a strong theme throughout the interviews; the idea that divorce was not the intended outcome for people who chose to marry would have a bearing on how the participants saw and thought of themselves.

What Others Think

An immediate answer for many was that they did not really care what others thought about their decision to divorce and that they wouldn’t let others’ opinions about them make the decision for them. However, many of the same people went on to express an understanding that in pursuing a divorce, they would be judged negatively by others and that they were aware of that fact.

Marriage Changed Me

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