Marriage, Part 2
The powerful effects of commitment
Spouses interviewed in the focus groups whose marriages had turned around generally had a low opinion of the benefits of divorce, as well as friends and family members who supported the importance of staying married. Because of their intense commitment to their marriages, these couples invested great effort in enduring or overcoming problems in their relationships, they minimized the importance of difficulties they couldn't resolve, and they actively worked to belittle the attractiveness of alternatives.
The study's findings are consistent with other research demonstrating the powerful effects of marital commitment on marital happiness. A strong commitment to marriage as an institution, and a powerful reluctance to divorce, do not merely keep unhappily married people locked in misery together. They also help couples form happier bonds. To avoid divorce, many assume, marriages must become happier. But it is at least equally true that in order to get happier, unhappy couples or spouses must first avoid divorce. "In most cases, a strong commitment to staying married not only helps couples avoid divorce, it helps more couples achieve a happier marriage," notes research team member Scott Stanley.
Would most unhappy spouses who divorced have ended up happily married if they had stuck with their marriages?
The researchers who conduced the study cannot say for sure whether unhappy spouses who divorced would have become happy had they stayed with their marriages. In most respects, unhappy spouses who divorced and unhappy spouses who stayed married looked more similar than different (before the divorce) in terms of their psychological adjustment and family background. While unhappy spouses who divorced were on average younger, had lower household incomes, were more likely to be employed or to have children in the home, these differences were typically not large.
Were the marriages that ended in divorce much worse than those that did not? There is some evidence for this point of view. Unhappy spouses who divorced reported more conflict and were about twice as likely to report violence in their marriage than unhappy spouses who stayed married. However, marital violence occurred in only a minority of unhappy marriages: 21 percent of unhappy spouses who divorced reported husband-to-wife violence, compared to nine percent of unhappy spouses who stayed married.
On the other hand, if only the worst marriages ended up in divorce, one would expect divorce to be associated with important psychological benefits. Instead, researchers found that unhappily married adults who divorced were no more likely to report emotional and psychological improvements than those who stayed married. 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.
More research is needed to establish under what circumstances divorce improves or lessens adult well-being, as well as what kinds of unhappy marriages are most or least likely to improve if divorce is avoided.
Other findings of the study based on the National Survey Data are:
- The vast majority of divorces (74 percent) took place to adults who had been happily married when first studied five years earlier. In this group, divorce was associated with dramatic declines in happiness and psychological well-being compared to those who stayed married.
- Unhappy marriages are less common than unhappy spouses; three out of four unhappily married adults are married to someone who is happy with the marriage.
- Staying married did not typically trap unhappy spouses in violent relationships. Eighty-six percent of unhappily married adults reported no violence in their relationship (including 77 percent of unhappy spouses who later divorced or separated). Ninety-three percent of unhappy spouses who avoided divorce reported no violence in their marriage five years later.