Does divorce make people happy? Some interesting findings from a study of unhappy marriages.
July 11, 2002
Call it the "divorce assumption." Most people assume that a person stuck in a bad marriage has two choices: stay married and miserable or get a divorce and become happier. 1 But now come the findings from the first scholarly study ever to test that assumption, and these findings challenge conventional wisdom. Conducted by a team of leading family scholars headed by University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, the study found no evidence that unhappily married adults who divorced were typically any happier than unhappily married people who stayed married.
Even more dramatically, the researchers also found that two-thirds of unhappily married spouses who stayed married reported that their marriages were happy five years later. In addition, the most unhappy marriages reported the most dramatic turnarounds: among those who rated their marriages as very unhappy, almost eight out of 10 who avoided divorce were happily married five years later.2
The research team used data collected by the National Survey of Family and Households, a nationally representative survey that extensively measures personal and marital happiness. Out of 5,232 married adults interviewed in the late Eighties, 645 reported being unhappily married. Five years later, these same adults were interviewed again. Some had divorced or separated and some had stayed married.
The study found that on average unhappily married adults who divorced were no happier than unhappily married adults who stayed married when rated on any of 12 separate measures of psychological well-being. Divorce did not typically reduce symptoms of depression, raise self-esteem, or increase a sense of mastery. This was true even after controlling for race, age, gender, and income. Even unhappy spouses who had divorced and remarried were no happier on average than those who stayed married. "Staying married is not just for the childrens' sake. Some divorce is necessary, but results like these suggest the benefits of divorce have been oversold," says Linda J. Waite.
Why doesn't divorce typically make adults happier? The authors of the study suggest that while eliminating some stresses and sources of potential harm, divorce may create others as well. The decision to divorce sets in motion a large number of processes and events over which an individual has little control that are likely to deeply affect his or her emotional well-being. These include the response of one's spouse to divorce; the reactions of children; potential disappointments and aggravation in custody, child support, and visitation orders; new financial or health stresses for one or both parents; and new relationships or marriages.
The team of family experts that conducted the study included Linda J. Waite, Lucy Flower Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and coauthor of The Case for Marriage; Don Browning, Professor Emeritus of the University of Chicago Divinity School; William J. Doherty, Professor of Family Social Science and Director of the Marriage and Family Therapy program at the University of Minnesota; Maggie Gallagher, affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values and coauthor of The Case for Marriage; Ye Luo, a research associate at the Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work at the University of Chicago; and Scott Stanley, Co-Director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.
Marital Turnarounds: How Do Unhappy Marriages Get Happier?
To follow up on the dramatic findings that two-thirds of unhappy marriages had become happy five years later, the researchers also conducted focus group interviews with 55 formerly unhappy husbands and wives who had turned their marriages around. They found that many currently happily married spouses have had extended periods of marital unhappiness, often for quite serious reasons, including alcoholism, infidelity, verbal abuse, emotional neglect, depression, illness, and work reversals.
Why did these marriages survive where other marriages did not? Spouses' stories of how their marriages got happier fell into three broad headings: the marital endurance ethic, the marital work ethic, and the personal happiness ethic.
In the marital endurance ethic, the most common story couples reported to researchers, marriages got happier not because partners resolved problems, but because they stubbornly outlasted them. With the passage of time, these spouses said, many sources of conflict and distress eased: financial problems, job reversals, depression, child problems, even infidelity. In the marital work ethic, spouses told stories of actively working to solve problems, change behavior, or improve communication. When the problem was solved, the marriage got happier. Strategies for improving marriages mentioned by spouses ranged from arranging dates or other ways to more time together, enlisting the help and advice of relatives or in-laws, to consulting clergy or secular counselors, to threatening divorce and consulting divorce attorneys. Finally, in the personal happiness epic, marriage problems did not seem to change that much. Instead married people in these accounts told stories of finding alternative ways to improve their own happiness and build a good and happy life despite a mediocre marriage.
The Powerful Effects of Commitment
Spouses interviewed in the focus groups whose marriages had turned around generally had a low opinion of the benefits of divorce, as well as friends and family members who supported the importance of staying married. Because of their intense commitment to their marriages, these couples invested great effort in enduring or overcoming problems in their relationships, they minimized the importance of difficulties they couldn't resolve, and they actively worked to belittle the attractiveness of alternatives.
The study's findings are consistent with other research demonstrating the powerful effects of marital commitment on marital happiness. A strong commitment to marriage as an institution, and a powerful reluctance to divorce, do not merely keep unhappily married people locked in misery together. They also help couples form happier bonds. To avoid divorce, many assume, marriages must become happier. But it is at least equally true that in order to get happier, unhappy couples or spouses must first avoid divorce. "In most cases, a strong commitment to staying married not only helps couples avoid divorce, it helps more couples achieve a happier marriage," notes research team member Scott Stanley.
Would most unhappy spouses who divorced have ended up happily married if they had stuck with their marriages?
The researchers who conduced the study cannot say for sure whether unhappy spouses who divorced would have become happy had they stayed with their marriages. In most respects, unhappy spouses who divorced and unhappy spouses who stayed married looked more similar than different (before the divorce) in terms of their psychological adjustment and family background. While unhappy spouses who divorced were on average younger, had lower household incomes, were more likely to be employed or to have children in the home, these differences were typically not large.
Were the marriages that ended in divorce much worse than those that did not? There is some evidence for this point of view. Unhappy spouses who divorced reported more conflict and were about twice as likely to report violence in their marriage than unhappy spouses who stayed married. However, marital violence occurred in only a minority of unhappy marriages: 21 percent of unhappy spouses who divorced reported husband-to-wife violence, compared to nine percent of unhappy spouses who stayed married.
On the other hand, if only the worst marriages ended up in divorce, one would expect divorce to be associated with important psychological benefits. Instead, researchers found that unhappily married adults who divorced were no more likely to report emotional and psychological improvements than those who stayed married. In addition, the most unhappy marriages reported the most dramatic turnarounds: among those who rated their marriages as very unhappy, almost eight out of 10 who avoided divorce were happily married five years later.
More research is needed to establish under what circumstances divorce improves or lessens adult well-being, as well as what kinds of unhappy marriages are most or least likely to improve if divorce is avoided.
Other findings of the study based on the National Survey Data are:
The vast majority of divorces (74 percent) took place to adults who had been happily married when first studied five years earlier. In this group, divorce was associated with dramatic declines in happiness and psychological well-being compared to those who stayed married. Unhappy marriages are less common than unhappy spouses; three out of four unhappily married adults are married to someone who is happy with the marriage. Staying married did not typically trap unhappy spouses in violent relationships. Eighty-six percent of unhappily married adults reported no violence in their relationship (including 77 percent of unhappy spouses who later divorced or separated). Ninety-three percent of unhappy spouses who avoided divorce reported no violence in their marriage five years later.
1. Examples of the "divorce assumption:" In a review of Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well by Ashton Applewhite in Kirkus Reviews, the reviewer writes that "if Applewhite's figures are correct, three-fourths of today's divorces are initiated by women, and if her analysis of the situation is correct, they are better off, at least psychologically, for having taken the big step." The book's publisher describes the book this way: "Cutting Loose introduces 50 women . . . who have thrived after initiating their own divorces. . . . [T]heir lives improved immeasurably, and their self-esteem soared." In an oped in the New York Times, Katha Pollit asks, "The real question . . . [is] which is better, a miserable two-parent home, with lots of fighting and shouting and frozen silences and tears, or a one-parent home (or a pair of one-parent homes) without those things" (June 27, 1997). In a review of The Good Divorce by Constance R. Ahrons in Booklist, we are told that Ms. Ahrons "offers advice and explanations to troubled couples for whom 'staying together for the sake of the children' is not a healthy or viable option."
2. Spouses were asked to rate their overall marital happiness on a 7-point scale, with 1 being the least happy and 7 the most happy. Those who rated their marriage as a 1 or 2 were considered to be very unhappy in their marriages. Almost 8 out of 10 adults who rated their marriage as a 1 or 2 gave that same marriage a 5 or more when asked to rate their marriage five years later.
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