Marriage Breakdown Causes, Types and Effects on Divorce

Learn why and how a marriage breaks down and what happens next

The marriage breakdown comes in many forms and precedes a divorce

It is hard to imagine a divorce not preceded by a marriage breakdown.

There are so many questions spouses ask. The three most common are the following.

  1. Is my marriage over?
  2. Should I attempt reconciliation?
  3. Should we attempt a trial separation?

When there is adultery during marriage or another significant breach of trust, such as a breach of fiduciary duty, it becomes more complicated.

Everything we write here applies to traditional marriages (husband and wife) or same sex marriages.

At the end of this article, we provide you with links to additional helpful guides. 

For now, let’s look at the most common reasons marriages break down, stages of a breakdown, and how different length marriages make a difference in the separation and divorce.

We start with the marriage duration and its effect on the breakdown, separation, and divorce.

Duration of marriage and breakdown

The marriage duration can complicate or simplify the subsequent separation and divorce. The longer the marriage, the more likely the spouses acquired "community" property, assets, and debts.

Longer marriages also usually include one or more children. Just as children add more responsibilities to our lives, they make separation and divorce more complicated.

Marriage breakdown for marriages of five years or under

Marriages of five years and under are usually uncomplicated. Exceptions are those that involve young parents and young children, substance abuse, or domestic violence.

When a marriage this short breaks down, spouses often have a premarital life to which they can return.

Separation is more straightforward for that reason. Spouses do not expect long-term alimony, nor are there typically significant assets to divide.

The financial detachment makes separation easier because spouses rely on each other less than a long marriage.

Marriages of five or fewer years usually have less bitterness over the breakup

Absent abuse, we usually see marriages of five years or less result in both spouses acknowledging the marriage was likely a mistake. It is best for both parties to move on with their lives.

Infants or toddlers can make the breakdown in short marriages complex

Marriage breakdowns in those five years or less have one complication with very young children, especially if the parents have sharp disagreements regarding shared parenting time.

This is especially true with young parents who are often less mature and more possessive of children. That immaturity translates into restrictive gatekeeping and frustration of parenting time.

Marriage breakdown for marriages of five years to ten years

Between five to ten years, the children are usually in grade school, and the parents are more mature. We typically see good parents handle the marriage breakdown well for marriages of this length.

They were married short enough not to have too much financial connection.

And suppose they were both involved in parenting the child or children. In that case, they usually want to keep it that way after marriage breakdown and separation.

There are exceptions to the amicable marriage breakdown

Yes, there are exceptions. Like before, domestic violence, child abuse, or substance abuse are game-changers.

A typical marriage breakdown is uncommon. There is a sense of "escape" from the marriage, as opposed to growing apart. This may result in restraining orders or emergency custody requests.

For a spouse or parent that feels "trapped," there is fear and uncertainty. When the abusive spouse or parent also controls the marriage's finances, it may take years before the other spouse or parent can break free.

Parental alienation is another nuance that affects the marriage breakdown

Suppose one parent engaged in a pattern of disparaging the other parent to the children, and the bond between the disparaged parent and the children steadily broke.

In that case, the marriage breakdown is more hostile.

The alienating parent senses the marriage breakdown, steps up his or her alienation, and engages in fiercer emotional abuse for fear of a divorce resulting in joint custody.

The alienating parent wants the marriage breakdown to break down the relationship between the victimized parent and the children.

That way, when the custody issues are in front of the court, the children have an unusual and unnatural fear of the other parent. The children may desire to limit contact with the other parent.

The younger the children are, the harder this is to accomplish. The older they get, the easier it is to alienate them, especially if the alienation started young. We discuss this more in the next section.

Before the next section, here are links to three articles you will want to check out later. They are pages on how to have an amicable divorce, parental alienation (it is an amazing guide) and our comprehensive resource on California child custody laws.

Marriage breakdown for marriages between ten to twenty years

At the ten to twenty year mark, the children are older. They are usually in their teenage years.

If the parents had children early in their marriage, they might be 18 or over, so child custody is not an issue.

If the kids are in their teenage years, the marriage breakdown can be harder for them than for the parents.

Children are especially impressionable in their adolescent years and are finding their place in life.

If there is parental alienation, everything we wrote earlier magnifies here.

The marriage breakdown can be a miserable experience for the victimized parent, especially if they allowed the alienation to go on for years. It is challenging to save older teenagers from this.

Marriages of ten to twenty years are more financially intertwined

First, the marriage is now of a "long duration," so alimony is a more significant issue.

Suppose one spouse is the much higher income earner. In that case, they are stressed about the marriage breakdown because that spouse believes a substantial amount of their income will go to the other spouse.

This causes that spouse to hesitate to acknowledge the breakdown and find ways (often futile ways) to find a way to make the marriage work, even though the breakdown is complete.

We have witnessed spouses stay in miserable marriages and even highly abusive relationships for this reason.

Contrary to what some believe, the higher-earning spouse can also be the abused spouse, regardless of gender. Ironically, much of this fear is unnecessary.

Once the spouse in this situation speaks with a knowledgeable and experienced family law attorney, he or she realizes the numbers are not nearly as scary as they thought.

Second, the spouses likely have enough community property to make the marriage breakdown more complex.

They probably own a home. So who will move out, or will they live together during the divorce? They likely have joint accounts, so how will they divide that? Where will they deposit their paychecks?

Even though there is a marriage breakdown does not mean the spouses can quickly separate their lives. They must put more thought into the custody and financial issues.

Marriage Breakdown Summary in Marriages Less Versus More Than Ten Years

Before we move on to marriages of twenty or more years, let us review the differences between a marriage breakdown and separation in marriages of less versus more than ten years.

Under Ten Years

  • Marriage breakdown is usually uncomplicated
  • Spouses often do not have a strong financial connection
  • Easier to return to the pre-marriage life
  • Domestic or substance abuse may complicate these marriages
  • Young parents who have young children may create custody disputes

Ten to Twenty Years

  • Marriage breakdown is emotionally harder
  • Spouses have a difficult time physically separating quickly
  • Parental alienation more common in high conflict marriages
  • Financial support becomes a greater consideration
  • Community property estates are usually larger

Marriage breakdown for marriages over twenty years

Marriages of twenty or more years usually do not involve child custody issues. One exception are those marriages where the parents had children late in life, which is becoming more common.

Other than child custody, they share many characteristics with marriages between ten to twenty years.

Here are the nuances to a marriage of over twenty years.

  • If one or both spouses were successful in their careers, there are usually significant assets to divide.
  • The marriage length means the spouses were together since they were young which makes the breakup harder.
  • This may be good for both of them if the respect and desire to keep everything amicable is still there.
  • This may be very bad if there is longstanding bitterness that has festered for years or more than a decade.
  • Since children are often not the issue, marriage breakdowns in marriages of twenty or more years need each spouse's honest collaboration on several topics.
  • The topics include living arrangements, support, and maintaining a workable status quo during the separation and divorce process.
  • The less "emotion" there is in these marriage breakdowns, the smoother it goes for both spouses and adult children.

Stages of Marriage Breakdown

We included this topic to highlight one point - we have seen the "stages" vary significantly from one marriage to another depending on the breakup's reason or reasons.

There is little similarity between the stages of a marriage breakdown due to spouses who care for each other but have grown apart versus a breakdown due to one spouse's ongoing physical abuse, at the other extreme.

If there is no abuse, here is what our family law attorneys typically see for the stages of a marriage breakdown.


Initial breakdown of marriage

One or more spouses believe the marriage is breaking down. At some point, one of them voices the concerns and there is a discussion about next steps.


Efforts to reconcile

After one or more spouses believe there is a breakdown, they usually discuss reconciliation. If they are serious, it is more than "talk" and they make genuine efforts to reconcile.

1st Failure

First reconciliation fails

The first reconciliation efforts do not succeed. There may be several reasons for this. The most common is the emotional wounds that caused the initial breakdown are too difficult to heal. Another common reason is one or both spouses cannot follow through on the "changes" one or both of them need to make.
More reconciliation

Spouses try reconciliation again

We often see continued attempts at reconciliation until one or both spouses no longer wish to continue it. These additional attempts may be through therapy.

Time gap

Time gap of inaction

In some marriages, when there is a breakdown, we see a gap of time that may be short or long where one or both spouses don't want to make the first move toward separation or divorce. If that is mutual and both spouses can tolerate this phase, it may go on for years.


Spouses physically separate

The next phase is usually physical separation between the spouses, which ironically does not always lead to an immediate divorce filing. Physical separation may be part of the "gap of time" phase we wrote about.


Realization marriage is over

At this point, reality often sets in. This reality is the marriage must legally end. Only one person needs to get to this point for a divorce filing.

Divorce filing

One spouse files for divorce

This is the final phase of the marriage breakdown and the beginning of the divorce process. One of the spouses files a dissolution of marriage petition and the California divorce process starts.

Causes of Marriage Breakdown

Here are common causes of a marriage breakdown

Marriage breakdown because of substance abuse

Substance abuse as a cause for a marriage breakdown is more common today because substance abuse is more common. The American opiate crisis significantly increased addiction, especially prescription medication abuse.

Alcohol or marijuana abuse, illegal drug addiction, and opiate addiction differ in several ways. Still, the one thing they have in common is they each destroy the marital relationship the addiction continues.

It is not a question of whether ongoing substance abuse will break the marriage down and lead to separation and divorce. It is a question of when.

Marriage breakdown due to physical domestic violence

Physical domestic violence should lead to an immediate breakdown in the marriage. Unfortunately, many victims of ongoing abuse feel trapped. Physical domestic violence is therefore not a "one" occurrence " and done with the marriage" type of event.

"When" a victim leaves the marriage depends on his or her support system. Victims with the financial and emotional support system outside the marriage can leave the abuse and not be left in financial hardship or unable to protect themselves and their children. This factor is so significant we have seen marriages of over forty years (with over forty years of physical abuse) finally cause the victim to leave, just as we have seen marriages of several months and one incident cause the same thing.

Not ironically, the victim far more often leaves these relationships. The abuser does not want it to end.

Marriage breakdown due to emotional abuse

Ongoing emotional abuse leads to the breakdown when the victim crosses the Rubicon of toleration. When the victim finally wants a better life for himself or herself, the victim leaves the relationship.

Marriage breakdown due to financial abuse or coercive financial control

What we wrote about emotional abuse equally applies here.

The more significant challenge is leaving the marriage and establishing temporary financial security before filing for divorce. Once the spouse files for divorce, the court can make temporary support orders to balance money access.

Marriage breakdown due to child abuse

Physical child abuse, like physical domestic violence, should be non-negotiable. The first incident should be last.

Emotional abuse of the child rarely leads to an immediate marriage breakdown. Like emotional abuse of a spouse, the non-abusing spouse has to cross that threshold where they are no longer willing to tolerate the ongoing abuse.

Marriage breakdown due to infidelity

Past infidelity may not lead to a marriage breakdown.

Serial infidelity often does when the spouse not engaged in adultery learns about it.

Depression and marriage breakdown

When one spouse suffers from depression, the other spouse's ability and willingness to be supportive may make the difference between an intact marriage or a breakdown.

Much depends on the cause of the depression and how the depression manifests itself in the suffering spouse's conduct.

Mental health issues and marriage breakdown

The effect of one spouse's mental health issues on the marriage breakdown is akin to that of depression.

The critical factor is whether the mental health problem is diagnosed and treated. Absent that, the marriage may feel like a dangerous roller coaster where the other spouse lives in anxiety or fear of what may happen next to destabilize the family's financial health or children.

PTSD and marriage breakdown

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects a marital relationship similar to depression or mental health. Diagnosis, treatment, and the other spouse's support (or lack thereof) make all the difference.

Irreconcilable differences and marriage breakdown

Sometimes, there is no "cause" for the marriage breakdown other than spouses who grew apart. We often see this in long-term marriages.

We note sometimes only one spouse believes this breakdown occurred while the other claims everything is fine, or so they thought.

The cause for this is usually poor communication between spouses during the marriage, especially a lack of openness as the spouses live separate lives under one spouse and behave more like convenient roommates than a marital unit.

Specialized articles on the breakdown in the marital relationship

We hope you found this article helpful.

We wrote specific guides on the topics below that lead to a marriage breakdown.

Our guides are not legal advice and are not intended to apply to your specific situation. They will provide you with a comprehensive look at these subjects and answers to the most common questions.