Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Divorce Isn't Always The Answer To Unhappiness

June 28, 2010

If you are in a bad marriage, you've got two choices, right? Stay married and be miserable or get a divorce and be happy. Wrong!

A study conducted by a team of leading family scholars headed by University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite found no evidence that unhappily married adults who divorced were typically any happier than unhappily married people who stayed married.

Being unhappy is not forever. Researchers found a third choice - stay married and with time, unhappy marriages turn happy again. Two out of three unhappily married spouses who stayed married reported being happily married five years later. Even among the most unhappy, almost eight out of 10 who avoided divorce were happily married five years later.

Divorce did not typically reduce symptoms of depression, raise self-esteem, or increase a sense of mastery. This was true even after taking into account race, age, gender, and income. Even unhappy spouses who had divorced and remarried were no happier on average than those who stayed married.

Almost three-quarters of those who divorced reported themselves as being happy five years earlier. Their unhappiness and decision to divorce wasn’t based on long-standing marriage problems. This group showed the most dramatic declines in happiness and well-being compared to those who stayed married.

There was one exception. Twenty one percent of people who divorce because of a physically violent relationship reported more relief, fewer symptoms of depression and increases in happiness after divorce. Also couples who stayed together despite high conflict and domestic violence were less likely to be happy five years later.

Why doesn't divorce typically make adults happier? While eliminating some stresses and sources of potential harm, divorce may create others as well. The decision to divorce sets in motion a large number of processes and events over which the individual has little control. These include the response of one’s spouse to divorce; the reactions of children; potential disappointments and aggravation in custody, child support, and visitation orders; new financial or health stresses for one or both parents; and new relationships or marriages.

Why do unhappy marriages get happier? The researchers conducted focus group interviews with formerly unhappy husbands and wives who had turned their marriages around. They found that many currently happily married spouses have had extended periods of marital unhappiness, often for quite serious reasons - alcoholism, infidelity, verbal abuse, emotional neglect, depression, illness, and work reversals.

Their reasons for unhappiness was lumped into three categories.

- The first and most common reason was that marriages become unhappy due to outside pressures and stress. The relationship wasn’t seen as the cause of problems but suffered as a result.

- The second category was called "men behaving badly." Men were more inclined to violate basic norms of

family behavior or were more unsupportive of family commitments.

- The third reason was due to chronic conflict, poor communications and emotional neglect.

Why did their marriages turn around? The focus groups gave three main answers: commitment, working on marriage problems and personal change.

- Commitment. With commitment, the most common story couples reported to researchers, marriages got happier not because partners resolved problems, but because they stubbornly outlasted them. With the passage of time many sources of conflict and distress eased: financial problems, job reversals, depression, child problems, even infidelity.

In the focus groups, spouses whose marriages had turned around usually had a low opinion of the benefits of divorce. They had friends and family members who supported the importance of staying married.

Because of this intense commitment to marriage, these couples invested great effort in enduring or overcoming problems in their relationships. They minimized the importance of difficulties they couldn’t resolve and actively worked to downplay the attractiveness of alternatives.

- Working on marriage problems. Spouses shared stories of actively working to solve problems, change behavior, or improve communication. When the problem was solved, the marriage got happier. They improved their marriages by having dates or finding ways to spending more time together, enlisting the help and advice of their relatives or in-laws, consulting clergy or secular counselors, or threatening divorce and consulting attorneys.

Wives especially enlisted the help of others to help change their husband’s bad behavior. Men changed in an effort to improve the happiness and well being of their wives and children.

- Personal change. These marriages didn’t seem to change much. Formerly unhappy spouses told how they found alternative ways to improve their own happiness and build a good and happy life despite a mediocre marriage. They reported investing in their own careers, interests and friendships outside of marriage.

Were the marriages that ended in divorce much worse than those that did not?

There is some evidence for this point of view. Unhappy spouses who divorced reported more conflict and were about twice as likely to report violence in their marriage than unhappy spouses who stayed married. However, marital violence occurred in only a minority of unhappy marriages. Only 21 percent of unhappy spouses who divorced reported husband-to-wife violence, compared to nine percent of unhappy spouses who stayed married.

Implications of these findings. Marriages are not happy or unhappy - spouses are. With the exception of marriages with a history of high conflict and domestic violence, unhappy spouses don’t stay unhappy when there is commitment, a willingness to work at marriage, or each spouse takes charge of his or her own happiness. If you think divorce is an answer to unhappiness, think again.