There is a great joy to the early struggles of marriage. When people who “make it” talk about the early days of their marriage, they admit it was bittersweet but they say the sweet ended up outweighing the bitter. Researchers agree. In a recent study conducted by a team of leading family scholars headed by University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, researchers 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 in their marriages reported the most dramatic turnarounds: Among those who rated their marriages as very unhappy, almost eight out of ten who avoided divorce were happily married five years later.
The study went on to say that there is a kind of “divorce assumption” in America. People assume that they will either stay in a bad marriage and continue to be miserable or get a divorce and become happier. But the social science data challenge that assumption. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is no evidence that unhappily married people who divorced were any happier that unhappily married people who stayed married! In no way does divorce reduce symptoms of depression, raise self-esteem, increase one’s sense of mastery, or generally improve any of the twelve separate measures of psychological well-being. Even the unhappy spouses who divorced and remarried generally were no happier than the unhappy ones who stayed married. In fact, the evidence seems to suggest that unhappy people are unhappy, period—married or not.
Dr. Waite concluded, “Staying married is not just for the children’s sake. . . . results like these suggest the benefits of divorce have been oversold.” It may look as if you will gain ground by eliminating some stresses of a bad marriage, but divorce creates more stresses than people bargain for: the ugliness of a breakup between partners; the reactions of children; potential disappointments and aggravation about custody issues, child support, and visitation orders; new financial or health stresses for one or both parents; plus the brand new relationships or marriages that also fail to make one happy.
If you are expecting marriage to be nothing but bliss, you will be sorely disappointed. It’s not that there is not bliss to be had—there is; it’s that bliss comes only after blisters. Marital bliss is the result of marital blisters—lots of hard work, where you work till it hurts, sometimes till you bleed. Marriages get happy not because partners get along so grandly, but because they stubbornly outlast the ways they don’t get along. There are all kinds of rough spots to work through when you step into life with another person: financial problems, job reversals, loss and its accompanying depression, child problems, and sometimes even infidelity. These things can destroy. But they don’t have to.
I know there are millions of unhappily married people throughout the world today. Maybe you are one of them. But unhappy marriages are unhappy because most ignore (or are completely oblivious to) the mistakes they are making in their relationships. There is hope for troubled marriages—even if you have become heartbroken and confused. But there is a connection between what you are putting into your marriage and what you are getting out of it.
The mere suggestion that people need to change their own behavior in order to get a better result is often greeted by blank stares. People tend to believe they should have a good marriage for no other reason than that marriage is supposed to be good. They believe they should have a good marriage because that is what they prayed for. They believe they should have a good marriage because. . . .we.., just because.
An attorney friend of mine told me, “I hit a horrible impasse in my first marriage. I felt I was right and she was wrong, so I cashed out. In my second marriage I saw the same things starting to occur that destroyed my first marriage. At first I thought I had made another bad choice in partner, but I decided to change how I was married, not my marriage partner. It turned everything around. I love my second wife, but I also understand now that I could have loved my first wife and not experienced the hell of divorce and the lifelong awkwardness it creates—especially with kids.”
I will continue with more on the myth of divorce next time.