Study: most couples who stick it out through an unhappy period return to happiness

The article is by Mona Charen, and the study is by the Institute for American Values. It’s an older article, but I was reading a book that mentioned the study, so I thought I would blog on it.

Excerpt:

Now, the Institute for American Values (www.americanvalues.org) has released a new study with some intriguing data about the effects of divorce on the unhappy couples themselves. It seems that another great myth is about to tumble – the myth that at least divorce makes unhappily married adults happier.

According to the survey, conducted by a team of family researchers, unhappily married adults who divorced were no happier five years after the divorce than were equally unhappy couples who remained together. And two-thirds of unhappily married people who remained married reported marriages that were happy five years later. Even among those who had rated their marriages as “very unhappy,” nearly 80 percent said they were happily married five years later. These were not bored or dissatisfied whiners. They had endured serious problems, including alcoholism, infidelity, verbal abuse, emotional neglect, depression, illness, and work and money troubles.

Even more surprising, unhappy spouses who divorced actually showed slightly more depressive symptoms five years later than those who didn’t. (They did, however, report more personal growth.) And – make of this what you will – the divorced sample reported a good deal more alcohol consumption than the married group.

[…]The data show that if a couple is unhappy, the chances of their being happily married five years hence are 64 percent if they stay together but only 19 percent if they divorce and remarry. (The authors acknowledge that five years is a relatively short period and many divorced people will eventually remarry, some happily.)

How did the unhappy couples turn their lives around? The study found three principal techniques. The first was endurance. Many couples do not so much solve their problems as transcend them. By taking one day at a time and pushing through their difficulties, many couples found that time itself often improved matters. Moreover, these couples maintained a negative view of the effects of divorce. “The grass is always greener,” explained one husband, “but it’s Astroturf.”

Others were more aggressive. Those the researchers labeled the “marital work ethic” types tackled their problems by arranging for more private time with one another, seeking counseling (from clergy or professionals), receiving help from in-laws or other relatives, or in some cases, threatening divorce or consulting a divorce lawyer.

In the third category were the “personal happiness seekers” who found other ways to improve their overall contentment even if they could not markedly improve their marital happiness.

Certainly the survey found some marriages that were impossible to save and some divorced couples who were happier than those who had remained married. That is as one would expect.

But the most telling aspect of this research is the light it sheds on the importance of the attitude toward marriage. Those who enter marriage with a dim (some might say accurate) view of divorce and a strong religious or other motivation for avoiding it are not only less likely to divorce; they are also less likely to be unhappy. That is the arresting news here. We’ve known that commitment was good for the children of such marriages. We’ve known that commitment was good for society. But until now, it was not clear that commitment actually made married couples themselves more likely to be happy.

I think the last point is a good point. Right now, a lot of young people are choosing mates based on superficial criteria (looks, money, popularity). The purpose of marriage is, in their opinion, to be happy. And their spouse’s job is to make them happy. That’s their view of marriage. But this ignores the realities of what marriage is about. Marriage is not a contract, it’s a covenant. People who marry ought to be getting into it because they want the responsibility of loving another sinner in close quarters. It’s not about feelings and life enhancement.

3 thoughts on “Study: most couples who stick it out through an unhappy period return to happiness”

  1. Could you say that marriage is like a covenant… just like the stories of God giving the Covenant to Noah (Ark in a time of the Flood), then to Moses (Israel promise), then to Jesus, where all of Humanity is invited to participate in a universal covenant with Christ?

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