Here's Why People You Know Might Be Breaking Up

August 23rd 2016

Laura Donovan

As summer comes to an end, so do a lot of marriages, according to a new working paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Divorce filings peak twice a year, and the month of August marks one of those times, researchers from the University of Washington recently discovered.

Looking at Washington state divorce filings in dozens of counties from 2001 to 2015, the researchers found that divorce filings peak in August and March. The findings suggest a “domestic ritual” calendar dictates when couples choose to separate.

Associate sociology professor and study co-author Julie Brines explained in a release that because summer and winter often represent important moments and trips for families, this could explain why people wait until these seasons pass to pull the plug on their marriage.

She also said summer vacations and holiday events perhaps present a final opportunity to repair broken bonds.

"My personal belief at this point in time, and that of my co-author, is that this is probably a little more reactive than proactive in the sense that people are hopeful," Brines told ATTN: over the phone. "They're on the cusp of leaving the marriage but they're hopeful that something might happen. They're willing to kind of let this next holiday season unfold. Maybe there will be a turnaround, maybe there will be something that they see in the marriage that they can build on."

"For some unknown number of marriages, that may be the case, that there actually is a turnaround," Brines continued. "Many people encounter disappointments during the holidays, even if they're not unhappy in their marriages. I think if you're on the precipice though, and you have a bad or stressful experience, that could be enough to tip you in the direction of filing."

Brines also told ATTN: that she and her co-author want to look more deeply at the analysis of divorce filings in other states to determine whether back-to-school season pushes people to file for divorce in August, given the fact that the first day of school varies throughout the U.S.:

"For most of Washington state, school doesn't start until the first week or two of September, so that's consistent with what we find in August. I know in the state of Nevada, I think Washoe county in the Reno area [for example], those kids have already been in public school for three weeks. There are other variations across the country and how soon school resumes. The idea here is if we have some observations and counties where school starts in early August, we should see a peak in July, following the same reasoning. Or it might tell us that what is most important is not that you've just had a summer vacation and that's been a bad or disappointing experience and it takes you in this direction of filing for divorce. What's really happening is that people are really waiting until the last minute before the start of the school-year."

As for the holiday season, Brines said that people might delay filing for divorce after the holidays because they need more time to retain an attorney and organize their finances, which may be in bad shape after ample holiday spending. When asked whether financial concerns stemming from holiday and summer spending might contribute to divorce rates during March and August, Brines said it's "possible" that this is going on with couples.

"Because we just look at filings, and filings in counties, we really don't have any kind of direction information about [this]," she said. "But what we try to do is infer from patterns we see, something about the importance of financial consideration. It's possible. We kind of use the language of stress, and we acknowledge that these are really stressful times. The stress can take different forms and have different sources."

Brines said that some others have interpreted her findings to mean that couples wait until after the new year to file for divorce to benefit from filing taxes as a pair one last time:

"[The idea is that] couples who are unhappy and contemplating a divorce and have maybe already made that decision to remain married through December 31 so they can capitalize on the marriage filing jointly status one last time. That's a possibility. Again, it doesn't really explain why you would see the peak in March and not earlier. I don't think it works as well to explain what happens in August, but that's one idea."

[H/T Bloomberg]