Top seven reasons couples divorce

PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images
PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images

It isn’t called your “big day” for nothing. Often months of planning goes into it. The invitations, the venue, the flowers, the dress, the photographer, the catering, the music – you want everything to be just right for this special day when you vow to share your life with the one you love.

The last thing on your mind when you’re standing at the altar is that somewhere down the line your fairytale might end in divorce. But it happens all the time. Every year thousands upon thousands of couples decide their marriage just isn’t worth fighting for anymore.

According to Statistics South Africa’s latest report on divorce in SA, 24 689 divorces were granted in 2014 – just more than three percent up on the year before. Most of these – 46 percent – were marriages that had lasted less than 10 years. More than half the divorces – 55 percent – were marriages where the children were younger than 18.

Another interesting statistic from the 2014 data is that more women initiated divorce than men – 52 percent of divorces were initiated by wives, 34 percent by husbands, and in the rest of the cases it wasn’t specified.

So what went wrong in these marriages that prompted the couples to call it quits? The Stats SA report looks at trends in divorce rather than the reasons behind it, so we asked Cape Town-based divorce and family law attorney Bertus Preller to let us in on the main reasons estranged couples seek out his services.

The most common causes when a marriage breaks down, Preller says, are infidelity, a lack of communication, religious differences, sexual incompatibility, clashing views on parental responsibility, finances and abuse – whether physical, emotional and/or psychological.

While these problems are the motivating factors for divorce, what in fact leads couples to split up is their inability or unwillingness to work through these issues, Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist Sandra Brownrigg says.

Here’s a look at the top reasons fordivorce – and what you should do if any of these issues are red flags in your marriage.


There’s no question that cheating is one of the main reasons for divorce and the reasons behind infidelity are numerous, Johannesburg clinical psychologistRiette du Preez says. While certain personality types are more prone to cheating, it can also happen because one or both parties feel unsupported or disconnected. Another reason for cheating is because couples grow apart due to a lack of common interests or hobbies.

Whatever led to it, infidelity often ends a marriage because couples struggle to get past the broken trust. But cheating doesn’t have to spell the end of a marriage – it’s possible to survive infidelity, although it takes a lot of work.

What to do if it’s a red flag for you

  • If you want to reconcile, get professional help, Du Preez advises. A therapist can help you discuss the issues that need to be thrashed out and navigate a way forward.
  • Both parties need to be willing to accept that problems in the relationship contributed to the affair. “They also need to be willing to work on and change the way they engage with each other to prevent a similar outcome in the future.”
  • Both parties need to be involved in the reconciliation, not just the one who cheated. “There must be a commitment from both sides to making the relationship work, and for the right reasons,” Du Preez says.
  • “There must be a commitment from both sides to making the relationship work, and for the right reasons,” Du Preez says. “Both parties must be willing to accept that the relationship as it was is over and start afresh. Trust will need to be re-established and the person who cheated needs to accept that this new kind of trust may mean more accountability and transparency on their part.”
  • Find common interests so you can have fun together as a couple – this will help to improve communication. “If a couple can’t find a shared interest, they may need to work harder at being involved in each other’s interests, regardless of whether they actively participate.”


Money is among the biggest reasons couples split. They may have different ideas about what to spend money on, how to share their finances, how to save or how much to save, Brownrigg says. As a result, finances can become a huge source of conflict in a marriage.

Even couples who’ve been married for a long time can find their relationship in trouble because of disagreements about spending, saving and other financial decisions.

What to do if it’s a red flag for you

  • Talk about it. It all comes down to effective communication, Brownrigg says.
  • Often couples look at the situation with a “right versus wrong” frame of mind, she adds.
  • “This isn’t done maliciously, but as individuals we get defensive. What you need to do is acknowledge the issue and work on gaining a better understanding of your partner’s perspective.”
  • Find solutions together. Once you understand your partner’s perspective on money, it will become easier to find the middle ground and figure out how to compromise.

Sexual incompatibility

Boredom in the bedroom is another big reason for marriages failing. Sex connects partners not only physically but emotionally, Pretoria-based clinical psychologist Dr Mpho Sepato says. At the beginning of most relationships, the sexual energy between a couple is high, but as time passes – and kids come along – that energy is likely to go up and down and may even fizzle out.

One partner may have a higher libido than the other, or have preferences that their partner isn’t willing to entertain. Less sex over time can eventually evolve into a completely sexless relationship, Dr Sepato says.

What to do if it’s a red flag for you

  • Communication is key, Dr Sepato says. It can be difficult to talk about unmet sexual needs and sexual frustration, but couples can resolve this issue only by discussing the matter openly, honestly and respectfully.
  • “Be willing to make the effort to understand each other’s ‘love language’,” she says. Understand that different things turn you on and that you need to be as understanding of your partner as you expect them to be of you.
  • Identify the problem – whether it’s that you need more foreplay, want to share your fantasies, or need your partner to be more romantic outside the bedroom.
  • Once you know what the problem is, find a middle ground. You need to reach a compromise that you are both happy with.
  • Schedule time for intimacy. It’s easy to let things slide, especially when you have work and kids keeping you busy, so the best way to make sure sex happens is to make a regular date.

Lack of communication

Poor communication styles can shut down a couple’s ability to connect with each other, Du Preez says.

“For example when someone is overly critical or lacks empathy in the way they respond to their partner, this often leads to one party feeling ‘unheard’ and as a result they stop communicating their needs or emotions to their partner. It can become a vicious cycle.”

This problem is often exacerbated by couples not spending enough quality time with each other.

“The excessive use of social media, cellphones and TV doesn’t help either as it can prevent a couple from connecting with each other even when they’re in each other’s company,” Du Preez adds.

What to do if it’s a red flag for you

  • Once poor styles of communication are established in a relationship, breaking them requires hard work and the help of someone objective, such as a therapist.
  • Prioritise quality time alone as a couple, Du Preez advises. This also means no cellphones, social media or TV so you can focus on each other.
  • “It’s important that this time is part of your daily routine, is easy and costeffective to do and fits in with busy schedules,” she says. “For example, sharing dinner together – in contrast to a ‘date night’ which can easily be cancelled, happens only once in a while or may become too expensive to keep up.”
  • Focus on listening. “Make an effort to really hear what your partner is feeling when they communicate,” Du Preez says. “We often listen to the words only, but it’s much more effective to respond to the feeling that a person is conveying.”

Parental responsibilities

Different ideas about how to parent children can be a source of major conflict between couples. Our views on this matter are influenced by our own personality, background and upbringing, Dr Sepato says. And if you don’t have healthy conflict resolution strategies to work out your differences, things can get heated.

It might start with slight irritation about your partner’s method of disciplining the kids (or lack thereof) but if you don’t talk about it, your annoyance could develop into serious frustration which is then vented by criticising, blaming, putting down or mocking.

What to do if it’s a red flag for you

  • No matter how frustrated you are, don’t criticise each other in front of the children, Dr Sepato says. You should also not make the children your confidants or burden them with adult problems.
  • Step back from the emotions this stirs in you so you can discuss the issues in a respectful and cooperative way. You need to do this if you want to communicate effectively and come up with constructive ways to resolve conflict.

Religious or cultural differences

In the early days of a relationship, when couples are infatuated with each other, it’s easy to see past such differences. But once the “honeymoon phase” wears off, religious and cultural differences can become more prominent in the relationship, Du Preez says.

Also, as couples enter new phases of life, such as parenthood for example, their religious and cultural views may become more of an issue. “Religious differences may not have been a problem when they initially met but once they have children, a couple may disagree on how they want to raise them.”

What to do if it’s a red flag for you

  • “Remain focused on the positive aspects that can come from being different, such as the diversity it introduces, which can be energising,” Du Preez says. 
  • Fairness is key. “When one partner’s religion or culture takes a more prominent place in the relationship, it’s important to question whether this is happening at the expense of the other’s.” This can lead to resentment and possibly even a breakdown in the relationship.
  • Be prepared to compromise – for example, you could split where you spend various religious holidays as a family from one year to the next.


Whether it’s verbal, emotional, psychological or physical, abuse is a relationshipbreaker like no other. It’s usually rooted in deep-seated psychological issues that require professional help to resolve.

What to do if it’s a red flag for you

  • Dr Sepato recommends a formula she developed called 4A: awareness + acknowledgement + acceptance = action. “You first need to recognise that it’s happening,” she says. “Being honest with yourself is the first step to regaining your life.
  • “Then you need to seek professional help, either individually or together, to begin the process of healing.”
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