- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 23, 2002

For years, divorce has been recommended as the best remedy for an unhappy marriage. Now a study suggests the idea that "they got divorced and lived happily ever after" is a bigger fairy tale than the traditional ending.
People who divorce are not, on average, more happy than spouses who stay in difficult marriages, researchers say in a recently released study for the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan think tank based in New York.
Moreover, most spouses who stick with difficult marriages are much happier five years later.
"Divorce is not a clear and obvious solution for an unhappy marriage," said syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher, a scholar at IAV and co-author of the report, "Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings From a Study of Unhappy Marriages."
"Staying married is not just for the children's sake," said lead author Linda J. Waite, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago.
"Some divorce is necessary," she said, referring to violent or destructive marriages. "But results like these suggest the benefits of divorce have been oversold."
For the study, Ms. Waite and her colleagues looked at data from the 1987-88 and 1992-93 rounds of the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH). The surveys asked the same people about their marital status and personal happiness, allowing researchers to find out what happened to unhappy spouses.
Of 5,232 married adults in the 1987-88 survey, 645 said they were severely unhappy in the relationship. Five years later, 478 of these unhappy spouses were still in their marriages, while 167 spouses had left their marriages.
Of those who stayed in their marriages, roughly two-thirds said they were now happy.
Of those who left their marriages and remarried, 81 percent said they were happy.
Thus, researchers concluded, of all the unhappy spouses in the first survey, just 19 percent of those who chose divorce or separation, were happily remarried five years later. In contrast, 64 percent of the unhappy spouses who stayed married said they were much happier.
The NSFH didn't explain why unhappy spouses who stuck it out became happier, so the researchers sought answers separately from 55 spouses who had once been very unhappy in their marriages but didn't divorce.
When asked why "good" marriages went bad, spouses most often listed "outside forces" such as work upheavals, illnesses and problems with children. Other explanations included "men behaving badly" "[Being] macho, drinking, cussing, fighting at the drop of a hat," as one husband put it chronic conflict, poor communication, emotional neglect and constant complaints about or from a spouse.
When asked why they didn't divorce, the 55 spouses cited reasons such as the children's need for a father, marriage vows, religious beliefs, underlying friendships with their spouses and the high cost of divorce.
There appeared to be three major paths from an unhappy marriage to a happier one, the researchers concluded.
Some couples "worked" on their marriage, with counseling from professionals, clergy, friends and relatives. Other couples just endured, "just putting one foot in front of the other" until the problems subsided.
A third way was to become personally happy, regardless of the state of the marriage. "If I wanted to go out with the girls, I went out," said one now-happy wife. "I got wings."
The IAV divorce report has garnered praise from many marriage-watchers, but it exasperates others who believe that the American family structure is inexorably evolving and that divorce like it or not is a healthy and necessary alternative to an unhappy marriage.
"It just doesn't fit the rest of the literature, clinical or otherwise," said University of Washington sociology professor Pepper Schwartz, who is a member of the Council on Contemporary Families, which studies family changes.
A book released this year by E. Mavis Hetherington shows that a significant number of people especially women tend to do better after divorce, added Stephanie Coontz, who teaches family history at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and is co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families.
Mrs. Hetherington's book, "For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered," is based on studies that have tracked 1,400 families for up to three decades. She found that 60 percent of divorced people ended up with new partners and a quality of life that ranged from "good enough" to flourishing.
What's really at play here with reports like the IAV study, said Ms. Coontz, "is a failure to admit the fact that marriage no longer plays the central role that it did for the last 5,000 years and as a result, there are going to be a variety of family arrangements."
Even though this historic change is happening, "people think they can jawbone it away, or cajole it away or scare it away, depending on the study," she said. "It's beginning to get very boring and very irritating."
The IAV divorce study "inappropriately" included "separated" spouses in its divorced category, added Ms. Schwartz.
Separated people are the most depressed they are "neither in or out of marriage, and that ambiguity has severe emotional and financial costs," said Ms. Schwartz. If separated spouses are removed from the calculations, she said, the data show that "actually the divorced people are happier."
Scott M. Stanley, another co-author of the divorce report, said separated spouses were studied both independently and as part of the group of spouses who "left their marriage."
Even if separated and divorced people are lumped together, he said, "the data still sum to the point that" people who stayed in unhappy marriages "got an equal, if not better, shot at maintaining well-being" than those who left.
The bottom line, advised Mr. Scott, who is co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, is that troubled couples should "go slow" in their decisions because "the choices you make in pain may not lead to lessened pain."
Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, which last week finished its sixth national conference on marriage, said the divorce study "is one of the most important tools in our arsenal," because it says that "if you stick it out, if you stay the course, you're much more likely to end up a happy person in five years."
Still, the findings don't fully resonate with Craig A. Everett, editor of Journal of Divorce & Remarriage and co-director of the Arizona Institute of Family Therapy in Tucson.
"I don't question the data they are reporting," said Mr. Everett, "but I think it is too sweeping to say that unhappy divorced folks are no happier than unhappy couples who stay married. There are too many variables, with regard to [having] children, the ages of the children and finances, etc."

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