The way that declining divorce rates are being discussed these days, Americans could easily conclude that marital breakdown is no longer a serious problem. That’s hokum. Whether the percentage of marriages that will eventually dissolve is still 45% or higher, or might eventually drop to “only” about one-third, that is too many, and the consequences of divorce are terrible. Besides, divorce is actually rising for older Americans. As a society we still need to reduce divorce, including resisting what Barbara Dafoe Whitehead aptly calls our “Divorce Culture” that encourages spouses to bail out of marriages as soon as they enter rough currents.
I have repeatedly bumped into the argument that encouraging those who are unhappy in their marriages to persevere is cruel. Underlying this pushback is often the belief that the typical marriage heading for divorce is “bad,” riddled by conflict, abuse, and other negative dynamics that are irresolvable. Thus, most divorces are better for all concerned. This notion is contradicted by the facts.
Every married couple faces severe challenges in their relationship, which at times seem to drag on without clear resolution. This has always been true. But modern culture emphasizes self-fulfillment, moral subjectivity, and has destigmatized divorce. There is little pressure or encouragement to stick together through serious marital challenges.
Yes, some marriages are too damaged and toxic to succeed. However, most divorces can be prevented, and doing so leaves a lot more people a lot better off.
First, the vast majority of marriages that end in divorce are not characterized by high levels of conflict such as violence, vicious quarrels, or profound disagreements. The data on this has been consistent for quite some time. For example, in A Generation At Risk, published in 1997, respected family scholars Paul Amato and Alan Booth found that only about one-third of divorces were preceded by such volatility. Two fine studies—one by Donna Morrison and Mary Jo Coiro that appeared in The Journal of Marriage and Family in 1999, and the other by Joan Kelly and Robert Emery that was published in Family Relations in 2003—found that no more than 20 to 25% of children in divorced homes saw their parents in this kind of difficulty prior to their split. In Does Divorce Make People Happy?, Linda Waite and her co-authors pointed out that 86% of those who said their marriages were “unhappy,” including 77% who went on to divorce, reported no violence in their relationship. The common notion that divorce typically ends a marriage riddled by severe conflict is false.
Second, marital unhappiness is normally one-sided. That is, as Waite’s book showed, about three of every four spouses who said their marriages were “unhappy” had a spouse who was happy with the union.
Meanwhile, the post-divorce period is often marked by terrible and destructive quarreling, not an end to conflict. A large law firm in England sponsored a study about a decade ago of over 2,000 divorced couples and about the same number of children of divorce. It found that 42% of the children saw their parents having bad quarrels, and another 17% witnessed violence between them. About a quarter of the children were asked by one parent to lie to the other. Half of the parents had to use the courts to negotiate disputes about their children with their ex-spouses, and half said they deliberately drew out the legal battle to secure personal advantage. 68% admitted to using their children as bargaining chips, while one in five said they tried to make their ex-spouse as miserable as possible, even when they knew it hurt their children. Some divorces ended conflict, but most did not, or even increased strife.
Next, divorce does not usually lead to a happier subsequent marriage. Statistically, second marriages are not happier than first ones. Remarriages are not only statistically more likely to end in divorce but are often preceded by one or more cohabiting relationships. That kind of instability is not ideal, especially for children.
Happily, by contrast, working on the unhappy-but-repairable marriage is usually successful. Waite and her co-authors found that two-thirds of unhappy spouses who stayed with their marriages identified their unions as happy five years later.
What seems to account for those dissatisfied spouses seeing their marriages not only lasting but turned around? There is quite a bit of good research on that.
Having positive attitudes about marriage and negatives ones about divorce is crucial, as is having family and friends that share these values. Also crucial is securing professional counseling that is positively committed to saving marriage. Practically, dealing with life issues that are undermining marriages, such as substance abuse or pornography, or money issues, are vital and can be helped by good counselors. Seeking and granting forgiveness and having the courage and transparency to engage in those transactions is essential to marital health. And often, just seeing where marriage problems are rooted in stressors outside the relationship, such as lousy bosses or caring for sick parents, can help. This too shall pass.
Here is some good news for you readers suffering from marital valleys but not fatal problems in your union: there is nothing you are going through now that countless couples have not also experienced and successfully moved beyond. Linda Waite and her co-authors wisely note that many couples who are currently happily married have weathered serious marital difficulties for two years or more. On the other side of those storms, many find themselves appreciating their spouse in ways they could not have imagined before their trials, especially when their partners have demonstrated their willingness to also make difficult changes. Many discover inner and relational strength they would have never known but for enduring hardship.
Not every marriage can or should be saved. But most couples can preserve their marriage and enjoy what most dreamed of when they first crossed that threshold together—namely, enjoying their union as long as both of them live. For most of us moderns, this means watching that youthful partner maturing into the faithful companion of our twilight years.
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