Maggie Gallagher
William Pinsof, a respected family therapist and editor of Family Process Journal, has just devoted a whole issue to the idea that preventing divorce is, well, a bad idea. "Divorce, Living Together Are New Norms," screamed the headline in USA Today.

"It is time to move beyond thinking about the divorce rate as an indicator of a social disorder that must be reduced, to thinking about it more neutrally and inquisitively," Pinsoff writes. Divorce should be regarded as one of the "normal social events in the life course of modern families."

Hmm, could ideas like this be one reason why a lot of Americans are afraid to consult marriage counselors?

I recently co-authored a study, "Does Divorce Make People Happy?" (www.americanvalues.org), that compared the well-being of unhappy spouses who divorced or separated with unhappy spouses who stayed in their marriages, using nationally representative survey data. Contrary to expectations, unhappy spouses who divorced or separated were not psychologically better off five years later. This was probably because most of the unhappy spouses who avoided divorce did not stay trapped in misery: Two-thirds of unhappy spouses who stayed married ended up happily married five years down the road.

How do unhappy couples turn their marriages around? To find out, we conducted focus-group interviews with 55 formerly unhappy spouses. Our sample consisted of husbands and wives from suburban New Jersey and northern Virginia, and was heavily weighted in favor of affluent, educated couples -- just the sort most likely to seek counseling.

Guess how many told us that marriage counseling played a key role in helping them avoid divorce and build happier, warmer marriages? Very, very few.

About one-third of these formerly unhappy spouses did consult a counselor (either secular or religious). Most of these reported the counseling was modestly helpful. But few offered counseling as one of the primary reasons why their marriages avoided divorce and became happier.

Meanwhile, a large number of spouses, especially husbands, saw counseling in a negative light, as a threat to their marriages.


Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.