USA Today

July 11, 2002

Unhappily wed? Put off getting that divorce Study finds that waiting, working it out can pay off

By Karen S. Peterson

Divorce doesn't necessarily make adults happy. But toughing it out in an unhappy marriage until it turns around just might, a new study says.

The research identified happy and unhappy spouses, culled from a national database. Of the unhappy partners who divorced, about half were happy five years later. But unhappy spouses who stuck it out often did better. About two-thirds were happy five years later.

Study results contradict what seems to be common sense, says David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, a think tank on the family. The institute helped sponsor the research team, based at the University of Chicago. Findings will be presented today in Arlington, Va., at the ''Smart Marriage'' conference, sponsored by the Coalition for Marriage, Families and Couples Education.

''In popular discussion, in scholarly literature, the assumption has always been that if a marriage is unhappy, if you get a divorce, it is likely you will be happier than if you stayed married,'' Blankenhorn says. ''This is the first time this has been tested empirically, and there is no evidence to support this assumption.''

About 19% of the divorced had happily remarried within five years.

The most troubled marriages reported the biggest turn-arounds. Of the most discontented, about 80% were happy five years later, says Linda Waite, a University of Chicago sociologist who headed the research team.

The study looked at data on 5,232 married adults from the National Survey of Families and Households. It included 645 who were unhappy. The adults in the national sample were analyzed through 13 measures of psychological well-being. Within the five years, 167 of the unhappy were divorced or separated and 478 stayed married.

Divorce didn't reduce symptoms of depression, raise self-esteem or increase a sense of mastery compared with those who stayed married, the report says. Results were controlled for factors including race, age, gender and income.

Staying married did not tend to trap unhappy spouses in violent relationships.

What helped the unhappy marrieds turn things around? To supplement the formal study data, the research team asked professional firms to recruit focus groups totaling 55 adults who were ''marriage survivors.'' All had moved from unhappy to happy marriages.

These 55 once-discontented marrieds felt their unions got better via one of three routes, the report says:

* Marital endurance. ''With time, job situations improved, children got older or better, or chronic ongoing problems got put into new perspective.'' Partners did not work on their marriages.

* Marital work. Spouses actively worked ''to solve problems, change behavior or improve communication.''

* Personal change. Partners found ''alternative ways to improve their own happiness and build a good and happy life despite a mediocre marriage.'' In effect, the unhappy partner changed.

Those who worked on their marriages rarely turned to counselors. When they did, they went to faith-based ones committed to marriage, Waite says. Men, particularly, were ''very suspicious of anyone who wanted money to solve personal problems.''

Those who stayed married also generally disapproved of divorce, Waite says. They cited concerns about children, religious beliefs and a fear that divorce would bring its own set of problems.

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