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Some spouses are trapped in a relationship where they are abused. Our suggestion is that they seriously consider asking the abusive spouse to enter long-term therapy or counseling. If this is not an option, then they should seriously consider separation.


A far larger number of spouses are in a degenerating marriage with excessive conflict, a lack of intimacy, or poor communication. They are faced with two obvious choices:

bullet To stay and work on their relationship in the hopes of restoring it to health, or
bullet To separate in the hopes of having a better life in the future, perhaps with someone else.

Unfortunately, no one seems to have examined the likely consequences of each option, until Linda Waite and a team of family specialists at the University of Chicago mounted a major study into "happiness" of people five years after making their choice to stay or quit. 1 They found that the better option may be to remain and work on the marriage.

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How happy are people five years after facing the divorce option?

The University of Chicago study was released on 2002-JUL-11, and can be ordered from their web site for $7.00. 2

Their research was based on analysis of data from the National Survey of Family and Households. It measured both personal and marital happiness of 5,232 heterosexual married adults during the late 1980s; 645 or 12.3% reported being unhappily married. They were re-interviewed in the mid 1990s. Some of the findings of the University of Chicago analysis were:

bullet Spouses in a really bad marriage tend to separate. But among those bad marriages in which the spouses stayed together, two out of three reported that their marriages were "happy" five years later.
bullet Among those who rated their marriages as "very unhappy," 80% of those who stuck it out reported themselves as happily married five years later.
bullet Those spouses who separated were, on average, no happier than those who stayed married.
bullet Those spouses who separated and remarried were also no happier than those who stayed married.
bullet Three out of four unhappily married adults were married to a spouse who is happy with the marriage.

The separation and divorce route may look like an attractive option. However, it has some disadvantages and stressors:

bullet The response of one's ex-spouse to the divorce.
bullet The reaction of the children.
bullet Disappointments and aggravation in custody, child support and visitation.
bullet Financial or health stressors in one or both parents.
bullet Stressors associated with new relationships or marriages.

To this list may be added:

bullet Loneliness: some people who choose divorce are not able to find a new partner.
bullet Many who have difficulties in a marriage (e.g. because they have problems communicating) find that they bring these deficiencies to the new relationship.
bullet Many who are married to a spouse who is physically abusive, mentally abusive, or who has an alcoholic or other drug addiction find that they choose a new partner with similar problems.

The researchers conducted focus group interviews with 55 formerly unhappy spouses who had been able to save their relationships and who are now happily married. Many of them had experienced "extended periods of marital unhappiness, often for quite serious reasons, including alcoholism, infidelity, verbal abuse, emotional neglect, depression, illness, and work reversals." The subjects often reported that:

bullet They were able to ride out the unhappiness. In time, some of the problems dissipated.
bullet They invested a lot of time working on their problems and improving their relationship. For example, they reorganized their schedules to spend more time together, they sought help from relatives or in-laws, they went to counseling, they threatened divorce and consulted divorce attorneys.
bullet They found ways of working on and improving their own personal happiness, even though they were in a mediocre marriage.
bullet Research team member Scott Stanley commented: "In most cases, a strong commitment to staying married not only helps couples avoid divorce, it helps more couples achieve a happier marriage." 3

USA Today quoted Linda Waite as saying that:

bullet Those who worked on their marriages rarely turned to counselors. When they did, they went to faith-based ones committed to marriage.
bullet Men, particularly, were ''very suspicious of anyone who wanted money to solve personal problems.''
bullet Those who stayed married also generally disapproved of divorce. They cited concerns about children, religious beliefs and a fear that divorce would bring its own set of problems. 3

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How reliable is this study?

We don't know.

We would feel a lot more comfortable about the results of the study if it were published in a peer-reviewed journal instead of being sold in booklet form.

The University of Chicago has produced a great deal of social research with very conservative conclusions over the years. One of their memorable studies concluded that only 1 to 2% of the public had a homosexual orientation. That study has been widely quoted by Fundamentalist Christian web sites. It is in conflict with other studies which indicate on the order of four or five percent of male adults and a slightly smaller number of females have a homosexual orientation.

Unfortunately, the University of Chicago study is the only one of its type that we have been able to find.

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The author's opinions on the divorce option, for what they are worth:

Marital separation may often be the preferred option, particularly if physical violence, emotional abuse, or hopeless and incurable addiction to alcohol, other drugs, sex, or gambling is involved.

But many marriages which are on the rocks can be repaired. Marriages can go sour for many different reasons. Some are:
bullet Expectations: Some couples believe in the "living happily ever after" image projected by Hollywood and children's stories. They expected that the intense romantic feelings towards their "soul mate" would remain constant throughout marriage. When their feelings evolved towards more of a companionship, they thought that something was wrong with their relationship.
bullet Maintenance: Many spouses don't realize that a good marriage takes a lot of continual effort.
bullet Roles: In opposite-sex marriages or common law arrangements, the spouses may have inherited different and incompatible beliefs about the roles of husband and wife.
bullet Modeling: Spouses often pattern their marriages after their families of origin, which are not necessarily good guides to follow.
These factors can often be overcome through intense communication and counseling. In my opinion, a person should take certain precautions before becoming involved in a new relationship after a marital separation:
bullet Wait for at least a year before entering into a new relationship. Work towards becoming stable, happy, and content as a single person first.
bullet Obtain a good understanding of the reasons for your marriage's failure before becoming involved with a new partner. Often counseling is the best way to obtain this insight.
bullet Improve your communication and other skills that you will need in a future marriage or long-term relationship.
bullet Avoid remarrying a person who has the same problems as your previous spouse.
bullet Attend pre-marital courses.
bullet Proceed slowly.

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  1. " 'Bored' of the Rings?  New Study Discourages Divorce," Family Research Council Washington Update, 2002-JUL-23.
  2. Linda Waite, et al., "Does divorce make people happy? Findings from a study of unhappy marriages," Institute for American Values, at:
  3. Karen S. Peterson, "Unhappily wed? Put off getting that divorce Study finds that waiting, working it out can pay off," USA Today, 2002-JUL-11, Page 1D. Online at:

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Copyright 2002 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-APR-8
Latest update: 2006-SEP-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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