A Fresh Start

Is There Any Truth To January Being “Divorce Month”?

We joke that “new year, new you” often means “so long, bad marriage” — but is it true?

Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock
The Divorce Issue

It makes a kind of sense, if you think about it. Amid the holiday scrum, with its blend of tense negotiations and financial limit-pushing and philosophical disagreements (Whose family gets Thanksgiving and whose gets Christmas? How much are we spending on the kids? Why did you buy him that goddamn BB gun?!), it’s not unexpected that you’d come to see your spouse differently. After all, why are you buying gifts for his picky mother and extended roster of second cousins? Why does your child’s teacher’s gift always fall to you? Why is he making a fuss about going to your parents’ house on Christmas Eve when you discussed it months ago? Why is he constitutionally incapable of filling your stocking? In short, “Why must the holidays be such a strain on the two of us, year after year?” is just a few short steps away from “Maybe it’s our marriage, not the holidays, that’s the problem.”

Another common reason for a theoretical surge in January divorces: resolution-making. In January, many of us think about areas of our lives we’d like to improve. Why shouldn’t an unfulfilling partnership speed to the top of the list of stuff to fix — or ditch? Not to mention that a new year can also be conducive to divorce in a few practical ways. Filing your tax return and receiving a refund might give you the funds you need to put down first and last month’s rent on a new place. Work might be slower and less stressful in the first quarter. And if you spent the tail end of the previous year saying, “Let’s just let the kids have one last normal holiday,” the coast is now clear for the big split.

The only issue? January isn’t actually the month that sees the most divorce filings. Like many well-worn adages (i.e., if you crack your knuckles, you’ll get arthritis!), it’s apocryphal — something that seems like it could be true but isn’t.

Instead, research has found that while divorce rates do seem to follow cyclical patterns, they spike not once a year but twice, in March and September. The University of Washington researchers who conducted this 2016 study (by looking at divorce patterns over 14 years) theorize that “divorce seasons” follow a largely unconscious “domestic ritual” calendar that guides familial behaviors. Winter and summer feel to families like sacred times when vacations are taken. Togetherness, thanks to holidays and breaks from school, is key. When these periods come to an end, however, families get back down to business — including, say, taking legal action. (Also, January is a tad depressing, which may inspire more than a few big life shakeups. No more festive fun, no more celebrations ahead — besides Valentine’s Day, of course, which may throw into even sharper relief the dissatisfaction you’re feeling with your marriage.)

Bottom line? The notion of a January divorce-a-palooza is one that sounds true but doesn’t really hold water. However, it’s interesting that we are all ready to believe it. What does that tell us? That dropping a dead-weight spouse is the ultimate New Year’s resolution. That the holidays are stressful, and that the person doing the lion’s share of the holiday work — shopping, wrapping, stocking-filling — might eventually get fed up with such a skewed division of labor. As one survey reveals, 80 percent of women say they take on the bulk of the “mental burden” associated with Christmas. And as the statistics show, most American divorces, 69 percent in fact, are initiated by women. January may not be the month in which the most divorces are initiated... but considering the unfair way in which the month prior often unfolds, you’d be forgiven for assuming so.