Separation Instead to Save Money
Married couples who undergo long-term separations generally appear to be those who can’t afford to divorce, an Ohio State University study suggests. Researchers find that about 80 percent of all respondents who separate ultimately divorce, most within three years. About 5 percent attempted to reconcile, but 15 percent of the separations didn’t lead to divorce or reconciliation within 10 years. Couples in these long-term separations tend to be racial and ethnic minorities, with low family income and education, and young children.
“Long-term separation seems to be the low-cost, do-it-yourself alternative to divorce for many disadvantaged couples,” says Dmitry Tumin, coauthor 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,” he says.
Tumin conducted the study with Dr. Zhenchao Qian, a professor of sociology at Ohio State. They presented their results at a meeting of the American Sociological Association.
The study involved 7,272 people from across the country who were married at some point and who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY), which is conducted by Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The NLSY is a nationally representative sample of men and women aged 14 to 22 in 1979. The same people were surveyed every year up to 1994 and every other year since then. The OSU study followed the respondents through 2008.
The results of this study showed that 60 percent of participants had gone through a marital separation during the course of the NLSY interviews, with about 80 percent of these separations ending 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 when last interviewed, and two years for those who reunited with their spouse.
Reconciliation after separation is often unsuccessful, the study found; half of those who reconciled were no longer married as of 2008.
People who divorced immediately were similar to people who separated first before divorcing, but people who separated and did not divorce had very different profiles, the researchers found.
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.
“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. Compared to people who divorce, those who separated without divorcing also tended to have more children, the study found. This may also be related to their disadvantage.
“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.
The 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,” Tumin said.
When the results of this study are compared to previous research, some trends emerge, Tumin said.
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.
No-fault divorces reduced or eliminated separation, which means that people who have long-term separations now may not have the financial or social resources to divorce, according to Qian.
“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.”
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