The Scary Reason Why Family Vacations Can Sometimes End in Divorce

Everybody knows that marriage isn't exactly a cake walk. The cold, hard truth of the matter is that many marriages deteriorate over time and end in divorce for any number of reasons. But of course, that's obvious. 


What's less obvious is this: that divorce is more likely after certain times of year. Researchers from the University of Washington have made an unsettling discovery about when divorce tends to strike. And what, exactly, is the culprit? Turns out, it's not a cheating partner or a lackluster love life -- it's those family vacations we look forward to with unwavering enthusiasm every year.

Associate professor of sociology Julie Brines led the study with her coauthor Brian Serafini, analyzing divorce files in Washington State between 2001 and 2015. They noticed that divorces peaked in March and August -- as in, the months following winter and summer holiday periods, when couples are returning back to their normal routines after an exhilarating (and possibly sleep-deprived) adventure.

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Full disclosure: I am not a married person. But still, this sparked my curiosity. I reached out to Serafini for some clarification about why married couples experience such a major decline in their marriage after the holidays. He told me:

The theory that we advance [in the paper] is that summer vacations and especially the holidays are periods of high expectations and hope. Couples that are on the verge of divorce may consider postponing the decision in hopes that they can work out issues during these happier, culturally sentimental times.

And there it is. Some family vacations are serving another purpose besides just going to Disney World and visiting Splash Mountain. It's much easier to think your marriage problems can be solved at the Happiest Place on Earth in a Technicolor theme park full of sunshine and music and sweets vs. on a random Tuesday night after work when you're both stressed out and tired. 

Still, we're all familiar with putting waaaaay too many expectations on our vacations, and Serafini agrees. "As many of us know all too well, these periods in the calendar do not always live up to their expectations and may even cause additional stress," he points out.

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And that's when everything comes to a grinding halt.  

"Partners who are disappointed that their vacation did not live up to expectations and are not willing to endure another period of hope with their spouse may decide it's best to split up," he says. "In this sense, these periods represent a 'broken promise.'"

Come again? "The 'broken promise' hypothesis was first applied to understanding seasonality in suicide, which, it turns out, follows a nearly identical seasonal pattern as divorce filing," he clarifies. Intriguing, if a little disconcerting. 

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With this research in mind, Serafini wisely suggests that for couples on the verge of divorce, "it may not be wise to place too much hope in the holidays or summer vacation as a time for reconciliation."

Clinical psychologist Dr. Amy Kim offered her perspective on why couples target the holidays as a means for reconciling their marital bliss: "I think when couples are struggling, they want to distract from their problems by having a baby or going on vacation -- but this is the opposite of what will help.”

She goes on to explain that not only will the issues probably not be dealt with appropriately while on vacation, but those issues may even be magnified in a new environment. Or they could just come up to the surface again once that Instagram-filtered vacation is over.

This reinforces the idea that holidays are overwhelmingly not the ideal time to work on a relationship, no matter what circumstances a couple is in.

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Okay, so if vacations play a part in deciding to call it quits, what should a couple on the rocks be trying to do if they want to reconcile the right way?

"The best way to patch up marital issues [is] through intensive self work," Kim explains. "It's about the small gestures in daily life, the tone and the words you use with your partner. Direct communication and willingness to work on oneself is key, as well as taking risks to communicate in new ways that might not be familiar."

And that advice is sound -- for any married couple, or anyone at all.

It's important to remember that none of this is designed to instill fear or anxiety in couples who are about to embark on the getaway of their dreams.

It's merely food for thought, and hopefully as a result of this, there will simply be a spike in healthy communication between rationally thinking people -- on vacation, or otherwise.


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