Does Divorce Make People Happier? Findings from a Study of Unhappy Marriages http://www.americanvalues.org/html/r-unhappy_ii.html
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
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. 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. 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.
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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