Don't Divorce, Be Happy

Is leaving a bad marriage a bad decision? Perhaps, according to the controversial finding that two-thirds of unhappy marriages right themselves within five years, and depression and low self-esteem are rarely remedied by divorce.

When researchers examined data from the late 1980s on 5,232 married adults, they found that 645 subjects reported marital dissatisfaction. When the unhappy spouses were surveyed five years later, those who had remained married were more likely than divorced subjects to state that they were happy. In fact, the most miserable marriages had the most dramatic turnarounds: 78 percent of people who stayed in "very unhappy" marriages said that the marriages were currently happy.

"For most people, marital unhappiness was not permanent," says University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, Ph.D., whose findings were published by the Institute for American Values. Critics point out that the organization is a pro-family think tank and that Waite herself co-authored The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially.

Howard Markman, Ph.D., a psychologist and marital counselor at the University of Denver states that "Some who divorce think it will make them happier. But people who are depressed and anxious often attribute that to a bad marriage. Then they get divorced and carry it with them."

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Waite points out that only 19 percent of divorced subjects were happily remarried. But the problem seemed to be finding a spouse, not maintaining a happy relationship. Only 24 percent of divorced subjects had remarried within five years, but of those who had, an impressive 81 percent were happy in the new marriage.

Subjects who divorced were twice as likely to report violence or abuse, and marriages that lasted comprised subjects who were more critical of divorce. But overall, unions that fizzled could not be "sharply distinguished" from those that prevailed.

Waite's point of departure—the assessment of marital happiness—may be just as fuzzy. In the original pool of more than 5,000 people, 25 percent who stated that they were in a happy marriage had a spouse who labeled the marriage "unhappy."

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