Associate sociology Prof. Julie Brines and doctoral candidate Brian Serafini presented the findings at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Seattle, WA.
The results of the research suggest that divorce filings could be driven by a “domestic ritual” calendar governing family behavior.
The team found that divorce consistently peaks during the months of August and March - times that follow winter and summer holidays.
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.
New school year may influence divorce month in couples with children
“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.
Pattern of divorce was tied to family holiday periods
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.
Seasonal divorce persisted in states with simpler divorce processes
Two of the 39 counties in Washington were excluded - Lincoln and Wahkiakum - as they are among the few places nationwide to allow divorce to proceed via mail without a necessary court appearance.
Anyone in Washington can file for divorce in Lincoln and Wahkiakum, and given the simpler divorce procedure, the researchers expected the results to be skewed by including these two counties.
However, while examining Lincoln County - which has accepted divorce by mail since 2001 - they found the pattern was the same as the rest of the state, although more pronounced.
“That leads me to think that it takes some time emotionally for people to take this step. Filing for divorce, whether you do it by mail or appear in court, is a big step.”
Prof. Julie Brines
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.
During the recession, Florida and Arizona were hit hard by the real estate collapse, and Ohio had above average unemployment rates. Despite those differences, the seasonal divorce peaks persisted.
“What I can tell you is that the seasonal pattern of divorce filings is more or less the same,” Prof. Brines concludes.