Rise in couples who split within five years

New study finds that many stray within first few years of marriage, some opt for divorce

The first five years of marriage are proving a challenge for more Singapore couples - that is when partners stray, and a rising number of marriages break down.

A study on straying couples by Touch Family Services found that slightly more than half the 164 respondents polled had affairs within five years of marriage. For one in three, the affairs happened in the first two years of married life.

The number of marriages which ended in divorce under five years rose from 272 in 1980 to 1,268 in 2012.

But those married for five to nine years continued to make up the largest group of divorcing couples over that period - 617 in 1980, and 2,084 in 2012.

The total number of divorces in 1980 was 1,551, and in 2012, the figure was 6,893.

There were 22,444 marriages in 1980 and 27,936 in 2012.

Most of the respondents in the Touch survey remained in their marriages, but lawyers say unfaithfulness is one of the main reasons marriages end.

"From the cases I see, infidelity is the No.1 reason for divorce and it is happening early in the marriage," said senior divorce lawyer Tan Siew Kim.

The Touch study, done over the past two years, invited individuals who had unfaithful spouses to complete questionnaires online.

Close to 1,000 people responded, but only 164 met the criteria of having been married and of having an unfaithful spouse.

The researchers found that nine in 10 of the troubled marriages involved dual-income couples and one in three cheating spouses earned more than $5,000 a month.

The relatively high socio-economic status of those who stray was also borne out in an earlier study on infidelity by Dr Terence Yow, a director of Reach Family Service Centre.

He found that 65 per cent of the 227 individuals who sought help at social service agencies after discovering their spouses' affairs lived in four-room or larger flats and earned $5,000 or more a month.

Counsellors point to several reasons the crisis point of the modern marriage seemed to be arriving sooner, and especially among better-off working professionals.

They say there is a diminishing social stigma attached to divorce and some couples are more willing to give up on a marriage in trouble.

Ms Elysia Tan, a counsellor at Touch Family Services and part of the research team behind the latest study, said many couples she sees are stressed during the year after having their first child.

"The level of marital satisfaction tends to drop as they transit into their new roles as parents. Some do not feel as important in the marriage or feel they do not have enough support from their spouse," she said.

Other couples find it hard to adjust to living together in a new home or have unrealistic expectations of what a happy marriage should be.

Dr Yow said: "The tenacity to work things out when challenges beckon is weakening and if they don't get what they want from marriage, they will ask, why live with it?"

As to why adultery seems more prevalent among better-off couples, he said overseas studies have also established that people with a higher socio-economic status have a higher risk or propensity for infidelity.

They tend to be more stressed, have the means to maintain an extramarital affair, have a bigger social network and are more attractive to others.

"It's a natural trend with modernisation and increasing affluence that we will continue to see divorces happening earlier and earlier into the marriage," he said.

Counsellors say it might help to encourage more young couples to go for marriage preparation programmes and to make it compulsory for those contemplating divorce to seek counselling.

"We may have to rethink the seven-year itch and embark on prevention work even earlier now," said Ms Tan.