July 19, 2002
Happy marriages and unhappy divorcesMona Charen
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 home.
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 adults happier.
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."
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©2002 Creators Syndicate, Inc.