Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Most Encouraging Family Statistic I Know

3/4ths of unhappy marriages will get happier if they just stick it out.

Every marriage goes through rough spots. Whenever you survey a bunch of married people, some fraction of them will report that they are unhappy in their marriage. You might think that that would be enough to predict divorce. You might even think that unhappiness is enough to justify divorce (though I don’t). The good news, though, is, as Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher report in The Case for Marriage, that three quarters of couples who say they are unhappy in their marriage now, will say that they are very happy in their marriage five years later – IF they hold on and work it out.

Still, the rough patches can be pretty rough when you are living in them. Some marriages are “high conflict” – the couple fights often, sometimes violently. BUT these are a small minority of marriages, and are only a third of marriages that end in divorce. Most divorces – about 2/3rds – come from low conflict marriages. They don’t hit each other, they don’t even fight all the time, they are just unhappy. They imagine that if they were apart, if they could somehow start over again, they might get happier.

SO let’s put these two statistics together:

2/3rds of divorces come from low conflict, merely unhappy marriages.
3/4ths of merely unhappy marriages will be very happy if they just stick together.
2/3 times 3/4 = 1/2.
Half of what? Half of the unhappy marriages that end in divorce would get happy if they just stuck it out another five years.

People who hate and hit each other will still divorce – and some probably should.
People who love and cherish each other won’t divorce – and society and their children thank them for it.
The large center of married people who are unhappy at one time can take heart – just hold on, keep working at it, and the great majority of you will see it work out just fine in the end.


Anonymous said...

I am heartened by some of this information. I am hopeful that my generation can turn this statistic around. And, I'm celebrating my 4th wedding anniversary today.

However, some of this is expected. "Just stick it out" can mean many things. When I was in High School, I thought my parents needed a divorce. They probably did. But, they stuck it out. Then they simply got too old and slow to run away. That's not precisely "happiness," but now that they are there, they'd have it no other way.

Gruntled said...

"they simply got too old and slow to run away." is a fascinating vision of marital longevity. Can you elaborate?

Cardinal said...

As a caveat, I am not married, nor have I ever been married, yet I would like to offer a "20-something, male perpective" on this issue.

I agree with the statement that was once shared in SOC 103 (Family Life) that "Choosing a mate/Marriage is one of the biggest decisions of your life". With this said, I feel that the majority of both men and women, especially my age, don't view the decision with such seriousness. Many individuals that are in their twenties have been raised in a society where they have been told that divorce is a reality, since 50% of marriages in our society end in divorce. I feel that not only is this unhealthy for future relationships/marriages, but it allows for the man/woman that enters into a marriage to believe that the marriage is not a decision for the rest of your life, yet is based on each individual's own terms. There is a weird belief that if "it" doesn't work out, the given person can always divorce and remarry someone else. The phrase of "I am not looking for Mr. Right, but only Mr. Right NOW" applies in this situation. In saying this, there seems to be a "trial and error" mentality rather than the "sticking it out mentality" discussed in the post.

Along with this issue, I feel that one of the major predictors of divorce (much like that shared on the Smart Marriages link) is the avoidance of conflict or more specifically, the lack of knowledge involved in knowing how to settle a marital dispute. The Smart Marriages site offers many excellent resources for couples, but not enough couples in my age bracket understand the complexities in a divorce fully (e.g. emotional, financial, family, and other related problems).

For these reasons, mate selection MUST be a serious consideration in every person's life. In college (if not before) it is important to formulate your likes/dislikes about a mate and understand your own values and the values that you desire in a mate. Though many people rush into a marriage presuming they can leave if "it doesn't work", I feel that a serious misconception is that things in a marriage will always be perfect and anything that diverts from this belief is ruled as a means for divorce, especially if this instant continues for more than a day or so.

And so, when many couples are told they need to confront their issues in their marriage, many do not know where to begin or who to turn to for help. This is a reason that I am an advocate for all men and women being required to participate in some form of family life course. Not only does such a class allow you to confront a lot of the issues regarding mate selection, marriage, children, etc., but it gives you an excellent venue for you to explore many of the issues with current or future partners. And these issues should be discussed before the marriage. I can personally admit that my particular family life class was a catalyst for the strength of my current relationship and has continued to impact it daily, as my significant other and I discuss relevant issues about family life from books that we read together on a weekly basis.

In summary, I feel that some conflict is a natural part of any and all relationships, but knowing what to do, who to turn to, and how to respond when the conflict is noticed is the major difference between a lasting marriage and not.

Gruntled said...


As Maggie Gallagher points out, all marriages have "irreconcilable differences."

Anonymous said...

This study has been encouraging to me, and it's something I do include in my courses.

The point that young people have almost come to expect a divorce is well-taken. I actually heard a member of divorcing couple say, "It was just my starter marriage anyway."

A corollary is that "sticking it out" is a skill set that my generation rejected in the high-divorce 1970s and hasn't yet been recovered by younger generations. Waite's reserach focused in part on the intervention of family and friends to turn around negative behaviors in a marriage. The techniques of arguing for compromise, of setting mutual rather than individual goals, of revising one's expectations, of learning to recognize when the other has sacrificed and being willing to do likewise - and myriad others - are recognized in the abstract, but not trained. Yet they can be learned.

Parents and other experienced couples used to pass this kind of advice on, and younger couples used to desire and accept it. That link isn't so strong any more, either.

Some of the couple communication programs are a help. I'm sorry to see the education for marriage move into a professional context, and be medicalized ("your marriage isn't healthy") rather than take place in a family or community context, and viewed as normal.

Gruntled said...

I find that students are hungry for sound, pro-marriage family advice in a sociology class. I am sorry that this is not the norm in our discipline, but the market is certainly wide open for those who want to make it.

Ben said...


While I agree with almost everything you say about the realities of marriage and this younger generation's cavalier view of the longevity of marriage (I myself have been married for seven years, now, and it has been and continues to be a relationship filled with learning), I take exception to your comment that all men and women be required to participate in some form of family life course.

There are a couple problems with this statement. First, this begs the question of who will provide the family life course, and who will determine the content. If it's the "government" (be it local, state, or federal), given their record I'm pretty sure we'd all be better off without it. And, do we want content regarding what you've written about marriages and sticking it out to become politicized? While less contentious than evolution v. intelligent design, it's bound to become a hotbed issue when it doesn't need to be.

Second, the idea that it be a "requirement" is both disturbing from a civil liberties point of view and prophetic of the "program's" eventual failure. The use of government force or coercion to mandate this "learning" greatly inserts government and its overreaching tentacles into areas of society where it does not belong. What happens, then, when divorce rates do not go down (which they won't)? Does the government take further action, like imposing a fine for those whose marriages fail (simply on the basis of failure)? Do we have mandatory marriage counseling by state-appointed social workers or psychologists before divorce filings are even considered? My second point on this compulsory family life education is that the mere fact of its being compulsory will assure its vast and monumental failure. It has been proven in sociological studies that humans typically do not learn as much or as well when they are being forced to learn. Sure, some will learn it well. The vast majority will be either attending with a grudge, refuse the information altogether, or "study" just enough to "pass." Why do you think the accident rate in teenage driver is so high? Sure, part of it is their youthful inexperience, proclivity towards distraction, etc. But a large part of it comes from the fact that driver's ed is in so many states part of the compulsory education system. We have so many children not even learning math to a sufficient degree, and we expect them to become better drivers via a class in the same school?? The same effect will be seen in a mandatory "family life education course."

Family life courses certainly serve a great purpose. I think the best way of teaching so much of what you discuss--really getting through to future husbands and wives--is for such classes to be voluntary and set up by private institutions who should go about trying to fill their classes via the use of things like advertising and informed parental guidance.

Thanks for your post, and I hope I haven't ruffled too many feathers with my post here.