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Navigating the uncertain divorce wilderness

PROVO — As a divorce attorney, Tamara Fackrell visualized the road to divorce as a single path that eventually split — one side to her office and dissolution, and the other side to counseling and resolution.

Yet as she began a Ph.D at Brigham Young University to better understand her clients, the picture began to shift.

"What we found was a marriage wilderness," she said, "a land of uncertainty."

Her dissertation, "Wandering in the Wilderness: A Grounded Theory Study of the Divorce or Reconciliation Decision-Making Process," provides some of the first data on the decision process struggling couples go through when deciding the fate of their marriages.

After interviewing 32 people, Fackrell identified seven main areas of concern: effects on children, emotional damage, loss of a friend and companion, financial impact, religious influences, social implications and dedication to the idea of marriage.

As individuals considered the consequences of divorce in each of these areas they either developed a better exit strategy — wait until they had paid off debt or the kids were older — or developed an increased desire to reconcile — let's go to counseling or talk with a financial advisor. Others continued to wade in and out of the wilderness, struggling but unable to leave the marriage.

Such data is encouraging for scholars who worry about the strength of marriage as an institution because it shows that individuals still see marriage as "real and tangible and meaningful, something that orients their lives," said Alan Hawkins, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University and Fackrell's advisor. "I would be discouraged if we had found that many people navigate the divorce-decision journey only with a detached rationality, a cold calculus, and a matter-of-factness."

In fact, no one in the sample said they made a quick, pointed decision about divorcing, Fackrell said.

"Think it through very carefully and consider all your options," was the comment of one interviewee. "Hasty decisions to divorce aren't great decisions," said another, as well as, "Don't leave a marriage on a whim."

Fackrell is currently analyzing six-month follow-up data to see which individuals actually split, which ones are still wandering and which ones are trying to reconcile. And the initial data is encouraging.

"(There are) people fighting very hard for their marriage and doing everything in their power to make it work," she said. "But even if you fight hard and do everything…that's not always going to guarantee that you're going to reconcile your marriage. At the end of the day, what people were saying is, 'No, it might still not work, but my fighting is a process for myself, so I can look God in the eyes, look my kids in the eyes and say, 'You know I tried everything in my power to make this work.'"