The late Paul Newman said that marriages can work as long as both spouses don’t go crazy at the same time. The observation bears remembering because so many people launch marriages that end in divorce because they believe what can be called the divorce myth of unhappiness: “Being very unhappy is a good sign that the marriage will end in divorce.”
Most married couples come to know that the road of marriage goes uphill and downhill. For them, even the word divorce never passes their lips. In the alternating current of married life – the give and take — for many spouses who don’t divorce the memories of the rough stretches – the uphill climbs – very often, in hindsight, make the marriage and the commitment that goes with it even more worthwhile.
Married people who divorce are unhappy, but the outcome of divorce is not necessarily the end of unhappiness, let alone the beginning of happiness. No married person can foresee the avalanche of changes a marital breakup causes — “processes and events over which an individual has little control that are likely to deeply affect his or her emotional well-being.” These include the response of one spouse to divorce, reactions of children, disputes and disappointments about child custody, support and visitation, and financial worries and woes.
“All marriages have their ups and downs,” says David Popenoe. He cites recent research using a large national sample that found that 86 percent of the people who were unhappily married in the 1980s, “and stayed with the marriage.” Five years later, three fifths of the formerly unhappily married couples rated their marriages as wither “very happy” or “quite happy.”
A 2002 study by University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite challenged what is termed the “divorce assumption,” that is, “that a person stuck in a bad marriage has two choices: stay married and be miserable or get a divorce and become happier.” Waite’s researchers also found that two-thirds of the unhappily married spouses reported that their marriages were happy five years later. In addition, the most unhappy marriages reported the most dramatic turnarounds: among those who rated their marriages as very unhappy, almost eight out of 10 who avoided divorce were happily married five years later.”
“The study found that on average unhappily married adults who divorced were no happier than unhappily married adults who stayed married when rated on any of the 12 separate measures of psychological well being. Divorce did not typically reduce symptoms of depression, raise self esteem, or increase a sense of mastery…Even unhappy spouses who had divorced and remarried were no happier on average than those who stayed married.”
Says Waite, “Staying married is not just for the children’s sake. Some divorce is necessary, but results like these suggest the benefits of divorce have been oversold.”