Does Divorce Make People Happy?
Findings from a Study of Unhappy Marriages
By Linda J. Waite, Don Browning, William J. Doherty, Maggie Gallagher, Ye Luo, and Scott M. Stanley

                                    Press Release
                                    Embargoed Until July 11, 2002, 10:00 AM EST
                                    Contact: Mary Schwarz, T. (212) 246-3942

                                    Major New Study:

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.

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.2

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 Eighties, 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 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. 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 Linda J.
Waite.

Why doesn't divorce typically make adults happier? The authors of the study
suggest that while eliminating some stresses and sources of potential harm,
divorce may create others as well. The decision to divorce sets in motion a
large number of processes and 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 and aggravation in custody, child
support, and visitation orders; new financial or health stresses for one or
both parents; and new relationships or marriages.

The team of family experts that conducted the study included Linda J. 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.

Marital Turnarounds: How Do Unhappy Marriages Get Happier?

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.

Why did these marriages survive where other marriages did not?  Spouses'
stories of how their marriages got happier fell into three broad headings:
the marital endurance ethic, the marital work ethic, and 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 and 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, or improve 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.

The Powerful Effects of Commitment

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
and 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, and they
actively worked to belittle the attractiveness of alternatives.

The study's findings are consistent with other research demonstrating the
powerful effects of marital commitment on marital happiness. A strong
commitment to marriage as an institution, and a powerful reluctance to
divorce, do not 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 is 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.

Would most unhappy spouses who divorced have ended up happily married if
they had stuck with their marriages?

The researchers who conduced the study cannot say for sure whether unhappy
spouses who divorced would have become happy had they stayed with their
marriages. In most respects, unhappy spouses who divorced and unhappy
spouses who stayed married looked more similar than different (before the
divorce) in terms of their psychological adjustment and family background.
While unhappy spouses who divorced were on average younger, had lower
household incomes, were more likely to be employed or 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 is some evidence for this point of view. Unhappy spouses who divorced
reported more conflict and 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 percent of
unhappy spouses who divorced reported husband-to-wife violence, compared to
nine percent 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 with important psychological benefits.
Instead, researchers found that unhappily married adults who divorced were
no more likely to report emotional and 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 eight out of 10 who avoided divorce were happily married
five years later.

More research is needed to establish under what circumstances divorce
improves or lessens adult well-being, as well as what kinds of unhappy
marriages are most or least likely to improve if divorce is avoided.

Other Findings

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

The vast majority of divorces (74 percent) took place to adults who had been
happily married when first studied five years earlier.  In this group,
divorce was associated with dramatic declines in happiness and psychological
well-being compared to those who stayed married. Unhappy marriages are less
common than unhappy spouses; three out of four unhappily married adults are
married to someone who is happy with the marriage. Staying married did not
typically trap unhappy spouses in violent relationships.  Eighty-six percent
of unhappily married adults reported no violence in their relationship
(including 77 percent of unhappy spouses who later divorced or separated).
Ninety-three percent of unhappy spouses who avoided divorce reported no
violence in their marriage five years later.
 

Endnotes

1. Examples of the "divorce assumption:" In a review of Cutting Loose: Why
Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well by Ashton Applewhite in Kirkus
Reviews, the reviewer writes that "if Applewhite's figures are correct,
three-fourths of today's divorces are initiated by women, and if her
analysis of the situation is correct, they are better off, at least
psychologically, for having taken the big step."  The book's publisher
describes the book this way: "Cutting Loose introduces 50 women . . . who
have thrived after initiating their own divorces. . . .  [T]heir lives
improved immeasurably, and their self-esteem soared." In an oped in the New
York Times, Katha Pollit asks, "The real question . . . [is] which is
better, a miserable two-parent home, with lots of fighting and shouting and
frozen silences and tears, or a one-parent home (or a pair of one-parent
homes) without those things" (June 27, 1997).  In a review of The Good
Divorce by Constance R. Ahrons in Booklist, we are told that Ms. Ahrons
"offers advice and explanations to troubled couples for whom 'staying
together for the sake of the children' is not a healthy or viable option."

2. 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.
 

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