Peter’s couple therapy blog

Will divorce will make it better?

Unhappy marriages are less common than unhappy spouses

Divorce didn’t typically:

reduce symptoms of depression
raise self-esteem
increase a sense of mastery

This was true even after controlling for race, age, gender & income. Even unhappy spouses who had divorced & remarried were no happier on average than those who stayed married.

Out of 5,232 married adults interviewed in the late 1980’s, 645 reported being unhappily married. 5 years later, these same adults were interviewed again. Some had divorced or separated & 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.

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.

The vast majority of divorces (74%) took place to adults who had been happily married when first studied 5 years earlier. In this group, divorce was associated with dramatic declines in happiness & psychological well-being compared to those who stayed married.

The above findings were from the National Survey of Households and Families. It is a longitudinal population-based survey of families and households in the U.S. that was designed to look at the causes and consequences of changes in American family and household structure. The first wave of the NSFH consists of interviews conducted during 1987-1988 with a national probability sample of 13,017 male and female primary respondents. Several population groups were over sampled, including minorities, single parents, persons with step-children, cohabiting persons, and recently married persons. In addition to each primary respondent questionnaire, there was a questionnaire for the spouse or partner of the primary respondent, if applicable, and detailed information was collected about a focal child. Respondents were followed up during 1992-1994, five years after the initial interview. The NSFH-2 included personal interviews with both the original respondent and the respondent’s partner (including the previous partner if the original union had dissolved), telephone interviews with the focal child, and telephone interviews with a randomly selected parent of the original respondent.

The researchers summary and the full research article is available here.


“Staying married isn’t 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 & sources of potential harm, divorce may create others as well.

The decision to divorce sets in motion a large number of processes & 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
aggravation in custody, child support & visitation orders
new financial or health stresses for one or both parents
new relationships or marriages.

Marital Turnarounds: How Do Unhappy Marriages Get Happier?

To follow up on the dramatic findings that 2/3 of unhappy marriages had become happy 5 years later, the researchers also conducted focus group interviews with 55 formerly unhappy husbands & 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:

verbal abuse
emotional neglect
work reversals

Why did these marriages survive where other marriages did not?

Spouses’ stories of how their marriages got happier fell into 3 broad headings: • the marital endurance ethic • the marital work ethic • 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 & 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 • improve communication When the problem was solved, the marriage got happier.

Strategies for improving marriages mentioned by spouses ranged from:

arranging dates
other ways to more time together
enlisting the help & advice of relatives or in-laws
consulting clergy or secular counselors
threatening divorce & consulting divorce attorneys

Finally, in the personal happiness epic, marriage problems didn’t seem to change that much. Instead married people in these accounts told stories of finding alternative ways to improve their own happiness & build a good & happy life despite a mediocre marriage.

Other findings of the study based on the National Survey Data are:

The vast majority of divorces (74%) took place to adults who had been happily married when first studied 5 years earlier. In this group, divorce was associated with dramatic declines in happiness & psychological well-being compared to those who stayed married.

Unhappy marriages are less common than unhappy spouses; 3 out of 4 unhappily married adults are married to someone who’s happy w/the marriage
Staying married did not typically trap unhappy spouses in violent relationships. 86% of unhappily married adults reported no violence in their relationship (including 77% of unhappy spouses who later divorced or separated).
93% of unhappy spouses who avoided divorce reported no violence in their marriage five years later.

When do People Divorce?

“Marriages are most susceptible to divorce in the early years of marriage

after 5 years, approximately 10% of marriages are expected to end in divorce
another 10% (or 20% cumulatively) are divorced by about the 10th year after marriage

the 30% level is not reached until about the 18th year after marriage
while the 40% level is only approached by the 50th year after marriage.

“Half of all children will witness the breakup of a parent’s marriage. Of these, close to half will also see the breakup of a parent’s second marriage.” 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 & 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 & they actively worked to belittle the attractiveness of alternatives.

The study’s findings are consistent w/other research demonstrating the powerful effects of marital commitment on marital happiness.

A strong commitment to marriage as an institution & a powerful reluctance to divorce, doesn’t 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’s 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.

“Over the past 30 years a consistent 96% of the American public has expressed a personal desire for marriage.

Only 8% of American women consider remaining single ideal, a proportion that hasn’t changed over the past 20 years.

Almost 3/4 of adult Americans believe that “marriage is a lifelong commitment that shouldn’t be ended except under extreme circumstances.”

Even 81% of divorced & separate Americans still believe that marriage should be for life.”

Would most unhappy spouses who divorced have ended up happily married if they’d stuck w/their marriages?

The researchers who conduced the study can’t say for sure whether unhappy spouses who divorced would’ve become happy had they stayed w/their marriages.

In most respects, unhappy spouses who divorced & unhappy spouses who stayed married looked more similar than different (before the divorce) in terms of their psychological adjustment & family background.

While unhappy spouses who divorced were on average: • younger • had lower household incomes • were more likely to be employed • were more likely 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’s some evidence for this point of view. Unhappy spouses who divorced reported more conflict & 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% of unhappy spouses who divorced reported husband to wife violence, compared to 9% 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 w/important psychological benefits.

Instead, researchers found that unhappily married adults who divorced were no more likely to report emotional & 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 8 out of 10 who avoided divorce were happily married 5 years later. Source


This one is on line at S.P.A.R.C

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.

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