In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

If Marriage Is So Good, Why Do So Many People Seek Divorce?

“Marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.”

"If you want to read about love and marriage, you've got to buy two separate books." Alan King

"Marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence. Second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience." Oscar Wilde

"I just want what every married woman wants, someone besides her husband to sleep with." Peg Bundy, the character on the television show Married with Children.

Some studies indicate that married people live longer, benefit from better health, earn more money, accumulate more wealth, feel happier, enjoy more satisfying sexual relationships, and have happier and more successful children than those who remain single, cohabit, or get divorced (see here). Despite such benefits, about half of all recent marriages currently end in divorce and many people choose to be single parents. Although marriage offers great benefits, many people do not want to be married. This is the marriage paradox.

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If sex within marriage is so good, why do so many people seek extramarital sex? Extramarital sex prevails despite the enormous risks it carries for those involved in it, including risks to their health, family, financial resources, and status. Moreover, it has been argued that married people have both more and better sex than singles do; only cohabitors have more sex than married couples, but they do not necessarily enjoy it as much. Married people are more satisfied with sex than cohabiting or single people are. This is due not merely to convenience, but to commitment. Thus, people who expect their current relationship to last at least several years are more likely than less committed people to find sex extremely satisfying emotionally.

Satisfaction with a sexual relationship is increased when the partners do not have sex with others. Accordingly, married people with more traditional views concerning sex out of wedlock are more likely to be sexually satisfied than married people with less traditional views are. However, even married people who have sexual affairs might enjoy better sex with their spouse. Thus, Margaret, a married woman who is having an affair for the first time in her long marriage, says, "The best orgasms I get are with my husband, although I can have faster and more orgasms with my lover. But there is something with my husband that is unique; I guess we have had more practice."

Analyzing the empirical findings concerning the above marriage paradox requires a subtle approach. Indeed, one longitudinal study of the impact of marital transitions on life satisfaction reveals that people who get married and stay married are indeed more satisfied than on average, but they were already so, long before the marriage took place. It seems that, often, happy people are more likely to get and stay married. On average, people get only a very small boost from marriage; most people are no more satisfied after marriage than they were prior to it. (Although it should be noted that the events of widowhood, and perhaps divorce as well, appear to have long-lasting negative effects.)

These findings do not mean that, after marriage, all people retain their starting level of satisfaction. Instead, while many people end up happier than they were before marriage, just as many end up less happy than they were, as marriage can be pleasant but also stressful. Various psychological factors are involved in determining such results. These findings suggest that some of the differences concerning happiness in marriage are due to pre-existing differences in satisfaction-these individual differences can easily be overlooked if only average trends are examined. Contextual and individual differences are thus crucial for determining long-term, as well as short-term, life satisfaction.

Several implications can be drawn from the above findings. First, for many people marriage is a suitable social framework for maintaining a high level of happiness; it is a most suitable one for those who are typically happier. Second, marriage is not suitable for many other people-typically, those with lower levels of happiness. Third, the existence of romantic bonds, as well as other life circumstances, can make a difference to our happiness. Although for many people marriage is a beneficial romantic form, for others it is not.

Historically, the social framework of marriage has been considered beneficial because it offers life satisfaction, sex, children, and financial benefits. Not all these factors have had a similar weight through history. Thus, in some sectors of certain societies, life satisfaction and sex were not significant in marriage. Our current society provides alternative forms of relationships that can offer these benefits, too. Thus, there are plenty of sexual opportunities outside marriage, children do not have to be raised within marriage, and people ensure their financial security without being married.

It seems that the gradual process of dissociating marriage from its significant relative advantages in terms of factors such as sex, children and financial security will continue. Accordingly, the survival of marriage will depend upon (a) its ability to fulfill its intrinsic emotional function-that is, offering a more satisfactory form of life, and (b) its ability to be at least as beneficial as other alternatives regarding the other factors. It would appear that marriage can be at least as beneficial as other forms of relationships in matters of raising children and financial security. In terms of other factors, greater personal space would be very valuable in order to maximize such benefits.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I have read that marriage is good for people and makes them very happy. So why are you so miserable in our marriage? Perhaps you haven't yet read those studies?"

 

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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