Researchers Think They Have Found Two Seasonal Divorce Spikes

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Photo: Peter Dazeley

Some researchers love to sift through all the noise of human behavior in search of seasonal patterns: What do the holidays and the variations in sunlight and temperature and all the other shifts that occur from January to December do to us, as a species, at the zoomed-out level? In the past, this sort of research has focused on things like suicide, violence, and other negative outcomes. Now, researchers have looked at a slightly less dire but still unhappy type of behavior: divorce.

In new research that was presented at yesterday’s annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Julie Brines, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, and Brian Serafini, a doctoral candidate there, reported “what is believed to be the first quantitative evidence of a seasonal, biannual pattern of filings for divorce,” the research’s press releases note. “The researchers analyzed filings in Washington state between 2001 and 2015 and found that they consistently peaked in March and August, the periods following winter and summer holidays.” They found similar patterns in Ohio, Minnesota, Florida, and Arizona, which “have similar divorce laws as Washington but differ in demographics and economic conditions.”

The researchers believe that, as the press release puts it, “troubled couples may see the holidays as a time to mend relationships and start anew: We’ll have a happy Christmas together as a family or take the kids for a nice camping trip, the thinking goes, and things will be better.” Account for the time it takes to realize this last-ditch effort has failed, get the lawyers ready, and so on, and it’s March. As for the summer spike, “Brines thinks the start of the school year school may hasten the timing, at least for couples with children. Suicides also tend to peak in spring, and some experts have said the longer days and increased activity elevates mood enough to motivate people to act. Brines wonders if similar forces are at play with divorce filings.” According to the researchers, the broader economic climate seems to affect these patterns — the predictable two-spike pattern was disrupted at the height of the recession, for example.

Any attempt to tell a causal story about big, zoomed-out behavioral trends is tough, of course, and while this research is intriguing, in general conference papers haven’t been peer-reviewed yet. The most interesting question, of course, will be whether this result holds up as the researchers examine more states. It will be really hard to test specific micro-predictions: Is it really that people don’t get divorced until March because it took a while to get the paperwork and lawyers in order, as Brines and Serafini suggest, or are people just less willing to fight to save their marriage when they are four months into a dark, cold winter?

Speaking of which: Wouldn’t one expect temperature and length of day to impact the divorce decision, especially in situations where a marriage has been on the rocks for a while, or is divorce such a long, drawn-out, deliberate process that it’s partially disconnected from these factors in a way somewhat more impulse-driven acts — such as murder and suicide — might not be? Whatever the answers to these questions, this is an intriguing initial finding.