Unhappy Marriages Can Get Happier

Linda Waite, a University of Chicago researcher, discovered that 80% of people who rated their marriages “unhappy” in a national survey, when asked five years later, ranked it “happier.” Of the couples that rated their marriages “miserable” (2%), about 77% rated them as “very happy” five years later.

Dr. Waite and other researchers argue against what they call the “divorce assumption”; that is, that a person mired in a bad marriage has two choices: stay married and suffer or divorce and become happier. Heading a team of family scholars, Dr. Waite produced findings that challenge conventional wisdom.

Their study found no evidence that unhappily married adults who divorced were typically any happier than unhappily married people who stayed married.

80% of people who rated their marriages "unhappy" in a national survey, when asked five years later, ranked it "happier."

80% of people who rated their marriages “unhappy” in a national survey, when asked five years later, ranked it “happier.”

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. 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 1980s, 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 researchers found was that, on average, unhappily married adults who divorced were no happier than their counterparts who remained 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 Dr. Waite.

They reported that divorce “did not typically reduce symptoms of depression, raise self- esteem, or increase a sense of mastery.”

While the authors couldn’t conclude whether unhappy spouses who divorced would have become happy if they’d remained in their marriage, they did find that two-thirds of unhappy marriages had become happier five years later. They attributed a strong desire to stay married, a commitment to solving problems and a commitment to find personal happiness despite a mediocre marriage were strong predictors of “happy” marriages (Waite et al., 2002).

Divorce does not make people happier because while eliminating some stresses and sources of potential harm, divorce may create others as well, the authors of the study suggest. The decision to divorce sets in motion processes and events that are likely to deeply affect an individual’s emotional well-being and over which an individual has little control. 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.

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.

The reasons why some marriages survive while others do not vary. Spouses’ stories of how their marriages got happier fell into three broad categories: the marital endurance ethic, the marital work ethic, and the personal happiness ethic.

> In the marital endurance ethic, couples said 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, and child problems, even infidelity.

> In the marital work ethic, couples reported changed behavior and improved 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.

“Marriages wax and wane,” Waite said. “A lot of what made these marriages better was seeing it through difficult times like losing a job, working long hours and having a child. Some people just made peace with something that drove them nuts.”

“It is best for the children if their parents can save their marriage,“ says Paul Amato, a Penn State sociology professor   “The best situation for children is growing up in a home with two parents who are happily married,” he added. “Parents give their children healthy role models for how to form relationships and maintain them.”

The team of family experts that conducted the study included Dr. 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.

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