Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Divorce is Not the Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow

By Ginny Anderson and Rebecca Bush, guest bloggers from the Family Life class
(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.


Stuart Gordon said...

It's encouraging to note the research into this and the level of engagement in your class. I've been teaching a book in my church that, from a theological perspective, faces the faulty notions underlying the culture of divorce.

The subtitle of the book is, "What if God designed marriage not to make us happy, but to make us holy?" The author critiques romantic notions of marriage, in which personal fulfillment and the perpetual experience of romatic love are the aim. Such naive expectations result in great disappointments and early exits from marriages that haven't begun to be mature and fulfilling.

I'm not at all surprised that people in "unhappy" marriages who persist, who remain married and work at it, eventually report being "happier." That's confirmation of generations of wisdom about human relationships. Relationships take commitment and a willingness to endure difficult times, unhappy times. True joy waits on the other side of such struggles.

Keep up the good work!

Michael W. Kruse said...

I had a counselor friend tell me once that the problem with marriage is not that is undervalued but that it is overvalued. Too many people think another person can complete them and bring eternal happiness. Following Stuart's thinking I think marriage is more a tool that God uses to complete us in Him and sometimes the process is deeply painful and disorienting...but well worth it as your research pointed out. Great posts.

Anonymous said...

What if you love your spouse very deeply but are not sexually fulfilled? What if you have tried to improve the sexual aspects of the marriage and the spouse has not responded in many ways? We saw a marriage counselor for a while, but spouse did not really change his behavior (he works long hours, leaving wife home to raise our child and feeling lonely). Now wife is interested in another man and is tired of a relationship that is lacking in sensuality and intimacy. Spouse has also been asked frequently to keep better oral hygeine (and not in an insensitive way) but the request is basically ignored.

Rebecca Bush said...

For the other side of our argument on happiness, you can check out Slate Magazine's pseudo-satire on why buying a video game console will make you happier than getting married.

Good for a frustrated roll of the eyes. It's sad but true. Sometimes I can sense the mental scales of my boyfriend's mind weighing whether he should buy an XBox 360 or save for marriage (at least I hope that's what is on the other end of the scale).

Mr. Gordon and Mr. Kruse, thank you for your responses. Have you read C.S. Lewis' thoughts on love and marriage in "Mere Christianity"? I think he would agree with you as well.

Anonymous said...

Dear gruntled

to enrich your perception of a dis gruntled couple, perhaps u should wed the Marquis de Sade or thhe burning bed.

Thank you for allowing me to post a comment.

amba said...

I think Beau has probably seen it, but I wrote about this here.

Also, a good book to read on this subject is M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled. (You could say Peck didn't exactly practice what he preached, since he allegedly wanted to have an "open marriage" and ultimately divorced and remarried.)

A big part of the problem is our longing for and sense of entitlement to sexual ecstasy. An elusive thing, almost literally like am addictive drug (altered brain chemistry), neither necessary nor sufficient for a lasting marriage, and perhaps something quite other than the kind of love that sustains lasting marriages, only rarely integrated with it. (Some sex therapist or psychologist said only 5% of marriages are both lasting and "hot.")

Gruntled said...

Is there any way to have a calm general discussion about the idea that we put way too much emphasis on sex? Love and as strong commitment makes sex worth doing -- not the physical sensation, fun though that is.