Divorces Rise Following Vacations?

Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 12.39.29 PMSeptember 5, 2016

Back from a vacation this summer? Back to work and the kinds are back in school? Perhaps beware! It looks like divorces tend to rise following vacations. True: A study from the University of Washington has found that divorce is seasonal during the periods following winter and summer vacations; and that it might be driven by a “domestic ritual” calendar governing family behavior – and how vacations may exacerbate underlying tensions and conflict.

The study was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association by researchers Julie Brines and Brian Serafini. According to a summary of the research, they found divorce consistently peaks during the months of August and March – times that follow winter and summer holidays. 

As reported in the summary of the research, Prof. Brines mentions that troubled couples may see the holidays as a time to mend relationships, and they might believe that if they have a happy Christmas or a successful camping trip, everything will be “fixed” and their lives will improve.

However, in reality, those periods of the year can be both emotionally charged and stressful for many, and they may expose cracks in a marriage. The seasonal nature of divorce filings may reflect the disillusionment unhappy spouses experience when vacation time does not live up to their high expectation, the research team points out.

“People tend to face the holidays with rising expectations, despite what disappointments they might have had in years past,” says Prof. Brines. “They represent periods in the year when there’s the anticipation or the opportunity for a new beginning, a new start, something different, a transition into a new period of life. It’s like an optimism cycle, in a sense. They’re very symbolically charged moments in time for the culture,” she adds.

Couples may make a conscious decision to file for divorce in August, following the family vacation, and before the kids start back at school. Prof. Brines and colleagues examined the reason for the divorce spike in March. Given that March is a few months after the winter holidays, is there still a connection between divorce and vacations?

Prof. Brines suggests that while considerations for divorce are the same during both peak periods – sorting finances, finding an attorney, summoning the courage to go ahead – the start of the school year may hasten decisions for couples with children in August.

The divorce peak in March could also be influenced by the trend of a rise in suicides in spring. Experts also indicate that the extra daylight and increased activity during that time of year elevates mood enough to motivate people to act.

Prof. Brines and Serafini were initially investigating the effects of the recession – observing rising unemployment rates and declining house values – on marital stability. While examining divorce filing throughout Washington, the team noticed monthly variations with the pattern of heightened filings emerging in March and August. “It was very robust from year to year, and very robust across counties,” Prof. Brines explains.

After accounting for other seasonal factors, including the housing market and unemployment, the pattern remained. The team hypothesized that if the pattern was tied to family holidays, other court actions involving families – such as guardianship rulings – should show a similar trend, which proved correct.

During the recession, patterns had a slight shift, with a peak earlier and later in the year and more unpredictability in trends. Prof. Brines notes that this trend disruption is unsurprising given the uncertainty around financial considerations, such as housing values and employment. However, the pattern shift during the recession was not statistically significant.

Future research will examine if the trends noticed in Washington also apply to other states. Prof. Brines and Serafini have already analyzed data for Ohio, Minnesota, Florida, and Arizona – states that have similar laws to Washington but have different demographics and economic conditions.

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