SAUSALITO, CA (ASRN.ORG) -- They were a few steps shy of divorce, separated and working out child custody, when Rick DeRosia of Hartford, N.Y., realized he wasn't so sure he really wanted a divorce.
He says his 16-year marriage had been shaky before the separation in 2009, when he told his wife, Tina, he wanted out. Their son and daughter were 13 and 11. And life in the midst of recession was also taking a toll.
"There wasn't any one event," says Rick DeRosia, 42. "It was several things over the years that started a downhill slide that never really came back up."
Divorce "was not really what I wanted," says Tina DeRosia, 38, but she thought he did. "I felt moving on was what I needed to do, but … should we try to do more? I thought about the effect it would have on my children."
The DeRosias, like so many couples, were teetering on the brink of divorce. The angst of such a major decision is very real. But little is known about how people actually decide — or why, like the DeRosias, they sometimes change their minds. New research offers the first inklings of understanding — and shows that there's uncertainty even among couples who have already filed for divorce.
Adding to the confusion is the financial reality that a split is expensive. Census data released last week suggest that the economy has indeed caused a dip in divorce. Some experts predict a divorce explosion when the economy improves, but others say the recession may keep some together long enough to work it out.
"There's a whole lot more ambivalence out there than any of us ever thought," says psychologist William Doherty, a marriage and family therapist and professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. He'll present results of his survey in Washington next month, expanding on his research published last spring.
Frank and Julie LaBoda of Cross Plains, Wis., were just weeks from a divorce decree that would have ended the marriage that began Aug. 7, 1992. "All that fun stuff was gone," says Frank LaBoda, 46, a transportation operations manager, who says his wife was so busy with the kids that he started spending more time with the guys. Then he had an affair and moved out for six months. That was in 1996.
"We tried to put it back together after the affair, but it was ugly," says Julie LaBoda, 44, a dental assistant.
Two years later, she filed for divorce, and they separated for another six months. But they opted for a last-ditch marriage weekend that they say saved their relationship.
"We found out that forgiveness and hope was possible and that people can and do change. We saw real-life examples of people who shared stories with us. Frank changed his behavior drastically, and I'm quite sure I changed my attitude," she says. "But it was a process to get through it — a good, solid two to five years." In 2000, they had a third child; their fourth daughter was born in 2002.
Doherty's survey of 2,484 parents who filed for divorce in Minnesota offers new insight into how people decide whether to call it quits or try again. About a quarter of those surveyed thought there was still hope for the marriage; in 12% of a subset of 329 couples, both partners independently indicated interest in reconciliation.
Additional surveys in 2009-10 of 886 Minnesotans who filed for divorce dug deeper into contributing factors. "Growing apart" was the top reason, cited by 55%, followed by "not able to talk together" (53%). Infidelity was cited by 34%, the same percentage who cited "not enough attention."
Doherty says lack of attention from one's spouse and in-law problems were among reasons associated with partners thinking the marriage could be saved. Also, infidelity wasn't a factor in whether someone was open to reconciliation, he says.
Alan Hawkins, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, says there's a lot of research on factors that predict divorce but "virtually no research on the thinking process."
Doherty says marriage today involves expectations of more gender equality than in the past. "We expect so much out of marriage, but we haven't prepared people for the skills that are necessary for the kind of marriages that we want now."
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler says couples often view her as "a last resort." But "it's radically cheaper emotionally, as well as financially, to fix the marriage than to declare it dead," she says.
The Census bureau counted 65,000 fewer divorces in 2010 than in 2008, a 7% drop. Observers say tough economic times mean many delay divorce; it's expensive to maintain separate households and pay attorney costs. It also may be difficult to sell the house to divide assets.
Of the more than 1,600 member lawyers surveyed in the past month by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 85% say they've seen a rise in divorce settlement complications over housing debt in the past three years; 53% have seen an increase in the number of child custody cases involving relocation requests.
Matt O'Connor, 40, of Atlanta shares custody of his kids, 11 and 4. His former wife moved to Phoenix a week before the divorce was final in July.
He believes the economy took a toll on his 12-year marriage.
"We had a business that was an early casualty of the recession. She found full-time work, but that business, after a couple of years, closed. She was one of the last people on staff; it was very stressful. When she couldn't find work, she tried to start a new business, and that ultimately failed as well," he says. "There was a tremendous amount of difficulty outside the marriage that ultimately impacted the marriage."
He says they couldn't sell the house, and his ex couldn't afford to move out, so they lived together until she left town.
Brandon and Erin Hamilton of Modesto, Calif., say they spent $15,000 to $20,000 for lawyers and other divorce costs — but ended up not going through with it. They married in 2005. The troubles started in October 2008, when she was on maternity leave from her job as a registered nurse.
"My husband took a 40% pay cut the month my first daughter was born," says Erin Hamilton, 29. "He didn't want to tell me about the pay cut. It just turned into this massive snowball."
He filed for divorce. Custody of their infant daughter became a major issue, both say. "In the process of getting my teeth kicked in in court, I was second-guessing myself," says Brandon Hamilton, 40, which prompted him to try reconciliation. "When I walk my daughter down the aisle, I wanted to be able to tell her that I tried everything."
They went to classes to bolster communication and conflict resolution, which she says helped when their home went into foreclosure.
The couple had another daughter three months ago.
The DeRosias, both certified nurse assistants at the same nursing home, were separated a couple of months and had both been dating others when a series of events changed their course toward divorce. A car breakdown and not enough money to fix it meant they shared rides to and from work for a week and spent extra time together during that period. He realized he was jealous of her new boyfriend. And then he says a song on the radio "hit an emotional chord with me."
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