'I'm a Divorce Lawyer. Here are the 5 Most Common Marriage Problems I See'

The advice I always give people about divorce is this: don't get one. The best divorce is the one you never have, if you can avoid it.

I never set out to become a divorce lawyer. In 2001, I worked in a small law firm with a partner doing "door law"—we handled any type of case that came in the door. A woman I represented in a personal injury case called one day and asked if I could help with her divorce. I took the case, telling her I would learn divorce law at my own expense.

She told her friends, and soon I had so many divorce cases that I decided to just focus on that. In the 20 years since then, I've worked with about a thousand couples and had consultations with thousands more. I've learned all about divorce, from dealing with complex financial issues to sorting out custody and alimony.

In getting an insider's view at marriages that aren't working, I've also learned a lot about what makes marriages work—perhaps similar to a doctor who gains a better understanding of how to stay healthy by dealing with sick patients. Here are some of the most common problems that I've seen in my law practice.

Infidelity

It seems like the most straightforward reason for a divorce: someone cheated.

But in my experience, infidelity is most often a symptom, not the disease. Apart from pathological cheaters who are in it for the thrill of sneaking around, in my experience with clients, most people cheat on their spouses because intimacy is lacking in their relationship.

I have seen many reasons for cheating in my years as a divorce lawyer. It could be that the couple has already fallen out of love, and the cheater finds a side relationship that gives them the intimacy that they wanted. Some people use an affair as an escape hatch out of the marriage; a way to end it without saying upfront that's what they wanted.

It could be a form of revenge for real or perceived neglect. Or just someone came along at the exact wrong moment.

I had one client who was very outdoorsy when she was younger. As her kids grew older, she wanted to get back into biking, hiking and kayaking, but her husband wasn't interested. He wanted to just hang out at home and watch football.

Soon, she learned that her neighbor also liked those active pursuits, and his wife also preferred staying at home. After several months, the outdoor adventure partners turned into a romantic relationship, and both marriages went downhill from there.

Infidelity almost always demonstrates that the marriages were already failing. In the case of my client, he and his spouse weren't spending time and energy on each other. As a result, one of them sought what they were missing elsewhere.

Five Most Common Marriage Problems
Divorce lawyer Raiford Dalton Palmer shares the five most common marriage problems he sees with Newsweek. Getty/iStock

Growing Apart

I hear signs of this a lot in consultations with clients: "There's no romance," or "She doesn't care about me anymore." Couples grow apart and fall out of love. The specific reasons for this vary from couple to couple, but I have noticed that the underlying problem remains the same. The couple didn't spend enough time on each other.

Being married is work. There are houses to buy and remodel, there may be children to raise, careers to build and it is easy to take each other for granted. But when couples don't put effort into maintaining their relationship, it can suffer.

I represented a man in a divorce case who had married young. When his wife's career started to take off, they decided he would stay home and be the primary caregiver for their kids. As the years passed, the wife spent her time working, including traveling around the world for her job. As the children got older, the husband was absorbed with them and his hobbies, while she remained focused on her career. As their oldest started college, there was simply not enough substance, or connection, left in their marriage.

Different Values

When you're dating, you may notice minor differences in how you approach certain topics, like money. Perhaps one of you likes to wear more expensive clothes or take exotic far-flung vacations. You may have religious or political differences. These can seem insignificant when you're in the first flushes of love and, sometimes, it stays that way.

But in my experience working with divorcing couples, after marriage, these differences in values can start to grow. I had a client who was a successful businessman in his early 50s. He worked hard for almost 30 years, invested wisely, and built a mid-seven-figure net worth. But after a cancer scare, he realized he didn't want to work so much anymore.

He wanted to get out and have adventures, travel, go surfing, and live his life, while he was still young enough to enjoy it, and he wanted to enjoy that time with his wife. but sadly, she wasn't interested in that lifestyle and they weren't able to work through those differences.

Divorce Lawyer Raiford Dalton Palmer
Raiford Dalton Palmer is a divorce lawyer who has worked with or consulted thousands of couples. Raiford Dalton Palmer

I have also seen instances where married couples have had kids, and this has brought family differences to the forefront of the relationship. Some couples I have worked with have been through rough patches and financially their different views on saving money have become divisive. Sometimes, just growing older can cause those values to change and become deal-breakers within the marriage.

Mental Health

I have seen problems with mental health affect not just the person suffering, but also their spouse, which can lead them to consulting with a divorce lawyer like myself.

In some cases, people with spouses with depression, bipolar disorder or more serious mental health issues can decide they just don't want to deal with it anymore—I often see this happening in situations where they feel their spouse is not taking enough responsibility for their own issues.

I've also seen cases involving a spouse with what appears to be narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, usually not diagnosed by a doctor, but evident in their behavior and treatment of their partner.

In one case, I worked with a wife whose husband had been verbally abusive for years; calling his wife names, demonizing her family, and controlling the family finances with an iron fist. While outwardly it appeared that they had a perfect marriage, his behavior when they were alone drove her to the point where she simply could not take it anymore.

Unfortunately, the same behavior that resulted in the end of the marriage continued into the divorce case itself, with the husband attempting to use litigation to destroy his wife. In that case, I was able to work with her to successfully negotiate a settlement and cut short the unnecessary drama.

Addictions

Perhaps the most heartbreaking reason for a divorce is addiction. In cases like drugs and alcohol, I have seen instances where a spouse has been supportive for years, but ultimately gets to their own breaking point. I have also worked with clients whose spouses have had addictions that may be perceived as less impactful, such as gambling, but are just as damaging to the marriage.

I had a client in his late 50s whose wife had blown through their entire retirement savings going to the casinos in the area to play high limit slots. He loved his wife deeply, which led to him enabling her behavior, and it was long since out of control when he came to talk with me. He tried to work with her, but he was down to the last of his retirement funds already and saw no way to stop her. He was worried that he would be left with nothing.

I have personally seen more so-called "gray divorces" in recent years; those involving older couples. I believe these are typically a result of cumulative damage, whether neglect, lack of attention, or the negative impact of mental illness or addictions. The ongoing challenges in the marriage become unbearable after a while. And, when people start looking at how they want to spend the remaining years of their lives, they aren't willing to continue putting up with it.

Many divorces are a collective result of years of actions and inaction and were set in motion years earlier by the decisions that the couples made, both about their relationship and about their own problems.

In the end, that's my advice in a nutshell. If you want to avoid ending up in my office down the road, it may be worth taking advantage of the many resources available for couples. For example, marriage counseling is a way to put in effort to resolve differences early and can help prevent resentments building up. It can really help to start working on your marriage sooner rather than later. Spend time on each other and have adventures together.

Raiford Dalton Palmer is author of the new Amazon best-seller "I Just Want This Done." He's also managing shareholder of STG Divorce Law in Chicago where he concentrates on family law including complex cases, especially high net worth divorces.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.