In the beginning was the myth that children were better off if
their unhappy parents divorced. "It's better to come from a broken home than
to live in one," they said. And millions of American parents separated. But
after several decades had passed, researchers like Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
and others showed that divorce was much worse for children than an unhappy
Now, the Institute for American Values (www.americanvalues.org)
has released a new study with some intriguing data about the effects of
divorce on the unhappy couples themselves. It seems that another great myth
is about to tumble -- the myth that at least divorce makes unhappily married
Even this may not be true.
According to the survey conducted by a team of family
researchers, unhappily married adults who divorced were no happier five
years after the divorce than were equally unhappy marrieds who remained
together. And two-thirds of unhappily married people who remained married
reported that their marriages were happy five years later. Even among those
who had rated their marriages as "very unhappy," nearly 80 percent said they
were happily married five years later. These were not merely bored or
dissatisfied whiners. They had endured serious problems, including
alcoholism, infidelity, verbal abuse, emotional neglect, depression,
illness, and work and money troubles.
Even more surprising, unhappy spouses who divorced actually
showed slightly more depressive symptoms five years later than those who
didn't. (They did, however, report more personal growth.) And, make of this
what you will, the divorced sample reported a good deal more alcohol
consumption than the married group.
The Institute for American Values report is leavened with New
Yorker cartoons. On the cover, a wife addresses her husband tenderly,
"Sweetheart, I don't want anyone to make you unhappy except me." Another
shows a woman shouting out an open window: "Wait! Come back! I was just
kidding about wanting to be happy."
The data show that if a couple is unhappy, the chances of their
being happily married five years hence are 64 percent if they remain
together but only 19 percent if they divorce and remarry. (The authors
acknowledge that five years is a relatively short period and many divorced
people will eventually remarry, some happily.)
How did the unhappy couples turn their lives around? The study
found three principal techniques. The first was endurance. Many couples do
not so much solve their problems as transcend them. By taking one day at a
time and pushing through their difficulties, many couples found that time
itself often improved matters. Moreover, these couples maintained a negative
view of the effects of divorce. "The grass is always greener," explained one
husband, "but it's Astroturf."
Others were more aggressive. Those the researchers labeled the
"marital work ethic" types tackled their problems by arranging for more
private time with one another, seeking counseling (from clergy or
professionals), receiving help from in-laws or other relatives, or in some
cases, threatening divorce or consulting a divorce lawyer.
In the third category were the "personal happiness seekers" who
found other ways to improve their overall contentment even if they could not
markedly improve their marital happiness.
Certainly the survey found some marriages that were impossible
to save and some divorced couples who were happier than those who had
remained married. That is as one would expect.
But the most telling aspect of this research is the light it
sheds on the importance of the attitude toward marriage. Those who enter
marriage with a dim (some might say accurate) view of divorce and a strong
religious or other motivation for avoiding it are not only less likely to
divorce, they are also less likely to be unhappy. That is the arresting news
here. We've known that commitment was good for the children of such
marriages. And we've known that commitment was good for society. But until
now, it was not clear that commitment actually made married couples
themselves more likely to be happy.
The capstone of this research is yet another New Yorker cartoon:
A man stands with his arm around his wife's shoulders and explains to
another couple, "Our divorce wasn't working."