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:
To stay and work on their relationship in the hopes of restoring it
to health, or
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.
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
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:
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.
Among those who rated their marriages as "very unhappy," 80%
of those who stuck it out reported themselves as happily married five
Those spouses who separated were, on average, no happier than those
who stayed married.
Those spouses who separated and remarried were also no happier than
those who stayed married.
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:
The response of one's ex-spouse to the divorce.
The reaction of the children.
Disappointments and aggravation in custody, child support and
Financial or health stressors in one or both parents.
Stressors associated with new relationships or marriages.
To this list may be added:
Loneliness: some people who choose divorce are not able to find a
Many who have difficulties in a marriage (e.g. because they have
problems communicating) find that they bring these deficiencies to the
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:
They were able to ride out the unhappiness. In time, some of the
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
They found ways of working on and improving their own personal
happiness, even though they were in a mediocre marriage.
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:
Those who worked on their marriages rarely turned to counselors. When
they did, they went to faith-based ones committed to marriage.
Men, particularly, were ''very suspicious of anyone who wanted
money to solve personal problems.''
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
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
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.
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:
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
Maintenance: Many spouses don't realize that a good
marriage takes a lot of continual effort.
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.
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:
Wait for at least a year before entering into
a new relationship. Work towards becoming stable, happy, and content as a single person first.
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.
Improve your communication and other skills that you will need in a future marriage or long-term relationship.
Avoid remarrying a person who has the same problems as your previous spouse.
Attend pre-marital courses.
" 'Bored' of the Rings? New Study Discourages Divorce," Family Research Council Washington Update, 2002-JUL-23.