(Part two of two)
In our family life class, we have seen that divorce has far-reaching negative consequences for adults, children, and society as a whole. Why then, do half of all American marriages continue to end in divorce?
During the divorce revolution of the 1970’s, popular theory purported that spouses had a responsibility to themselves and to their children to end a reportedly unhappy marriage. This quickly became conventional wisdom. In discussing her own parents’ 1970’s era divorce, Elizabeth Marquardt, author of Between Two Worlds, says
“leading experts assured parents that as long as they found happiness their children would be happy too. Some experts even insisted that parents in unhappy marriages had a duty to divorce or they would irrevocably damage their children. More nuanced ideas about happiness—that there are degrees of unhappiness in marriages, that marital happiness can go in cycles, that divorce doesn’t necessarily make adults happy, that children’s natural inclination is not to worry about their parents’ happiness so much as their own—did not have much influence in the early seventies.”In a 2002 study by the Institute for American Values, family scholars supported these statements. They determined that divorce, just like the illustrious BMW, does not make unhappy couples as happy as they think it will. One finding stated that, “Unhappily married adults who divorced or separated were no happier, on average, than unhappily married adults who stayed married.” Again, we see that there is a discrepancy between the predicted outcome and the actual outcome of an important choice. The lives of divorced spouses, and indeed their entire families, are no more gratifying post-divorce. This brings us to one of the study’s other key findings: “Divorce did not reduce symptoms of depression for unhappily married adults, or raise their self-esteem, or increase their sense of mastery, on average, compared to unhappy spouses who stayed married.” Ultimately, divorced couples reaped none of the benefits that they expected, such as personal satisfaction and self-fulfillment and instead found themselves facing a battery of unexpected negative consequences.
If divorce is not the solution to marital dissatisfaction, what hope then exists for unhappy couples? This is where we return to our earlier discussion on the transitory nature of happiness itself. If happiness is an internal function, subject to frequent highs and lows over the course of one’s life, then we can predict that happiness in marriage will follow this same pattern. The study confirms this hypothesis: “Two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce or separation ended up happily married five years later.” Furthermore, if the decision to divorce is made in an emotional “hot” state, even a sustained emotional hot state, the couple is unlikely to give heed to all of the potential outcomes, such as economic instability, loneliness, depression, diminished physical health, and emotionally divided children.
For unhappy couples seeking to improve their marriages without suffering the unhappy consequences of a divorce, there are ways to foster lasting feelings of satisfaction. The marital tensions can be waited out, worked through, or worked around. Cliché though it sounds, “time heals all things” can be applied to most marriages, as evidenced by the two-thirds of unhappy couples who reported greater satisfaction after five years. The study calls this the “marital endurance ethic.” The less passive approach, “the marital work ethic,” can be to directly combat the sources of unhappiness through changed behavior. Finally, if happiness appears unattainable within the relationship, it is at least attainable for each individual through meaningful actions and interpersonal relationships, again confirming that lasting happiness is an internal state of mind rather than a result of external conditions.