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Birds and Bees

The Upside of Down Marriages

Five-year study shows that, given time, relationships can often bounce back


To divorce or not to divorce. That is the question some deeply unhappily wed people wrestle with as they weigh the personal costs of staying in an unhappy marriage against the hope of finding contentedness on their own.

In what is believed to be one of the first studies of its kind, a team of sociologists, psychologists and scholars compared unhappily married people who divorced to unhappily married people who stayed together.

Using a 12-question survey that measured psychological and emotional well-being, the researchers found that, on average, unhappily married people who divorced were no happier and no less depressed than unhappily married people who stayed the conjugal course.

Further, they had no greater self-esteem or sense of personal mastery.

About 19% of unhappy spouses who divorced or separated were happily remarried five years later, but they were no happier, on average, than those who stayed married. Two-thirds of unhappily married spouses who hung in there described themselves as happily married five years later. Perhaps most striking, 80% of marriages in deepest turmoil turned around five years later, with the unhappy spouse reportedly very happy.

"The conventional belief is that when a marriage is down, it is done," said Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver and one of the study's co-authors. "But what we are seeing with this data is that there are couples who are basically down, but the relationship bounces back."

The study was presented earlier this month in Arlington, Va., at the "Smart Marriages" conference sponsored by the Coalition for Marriage, Families and Couples Education. The research team, led by University of Chicago sociologist Linda J. Waite, was funded by the Institute for American Values, a New York City think tank focused on the family and promoting marriage.

Using the National Survey of Families and Households, a nationally representative sample of 5,232 married adults who took surveys measuring personal and marital happiness at different time intervals, the researchers focused on 645 spouses who rated their marriages "unhappy" in the late '80s.

Five years later, when the discontented partners were re-interviewed, 167 had divorced or separated, while 478 had remained married. In general, the study found, divorce was not a ticket to happiness.

"Divorce on average did not improve the personal lives of those who went through it within that five-year period," said William J. Doherty, co-author of the report, who is a professor of family social science and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy program at the University of Minnesota.

Not surprisingly, the exceptions were people in violent and abusive marriages, whose lives improved markedly following divorce. Divorce doesn't necessarily make people happy, the researchers said, because it introduces an exponential increase in emotionally laden, complex problems that a person has little control over and that have a wide and varied impact on well-being, such as child-custody battles, children's reactions to divorce, economic hardship and romantic disappointments.

But people don't get divorced in pursuit of happiness, argues Constance Ahrons, professor emeritus of sociology at USC and author of "The Good Divorce" (HarperCollins, 1998). "People get a divorce because they can't take it anymore, and they can't stand what they are living," said Ahrons, who said she is suspicious of the findings because of what she regards as the researchers' anti-divorce bias.

Some new research suggests that divorce improves the lives of some people--and not just those in abusive relationships. E. Mavis Hetherington, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Virginia who co-wrote "For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered" (Norton, 2002), followed 1,400 families and 2,500 children, some for three decades.

She found that divorce enhanced the lives of 20% of people (i.e., they had more success in work, marriages and parenting). Another 10% of people who divorced were "emotionally self-sustaining" and leading happy, fulfilling lives without a partner by choice. Forty percent of people who divorced had different partners and different marriages but the same problems, Hetherington found.

Other research has found that the children of parents in high-conflict, volatile marriages are better off if their parents divorce.

No research perfectly answers any question, said Doherty. "Our study is just one study and it needs to be replicated," he said. "The larger message of this study is that unhappy marriages improve, and that there is the possibility of turning around unhappy marriages."

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