The Surprising Truth About Couples on the Edge

There are advantages to staying together, but not for everyone.

Posted Dec 26, 2015

wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

We’ve all heard that 50% of marriages end in divorce, but we’ve all heard wrong. Justin Wolfers of Michigan State points out that the divorce rate has steadily dropped since the '80s and estimates that roughly two-thirds of today’s marriages will survive.
 
That sounds like a good thing, but is it really?
 
Despite plummeting divorce rates, only 17% of marriages are happy ones, according to Dana Adam Shapiro, in a survey cited in You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married): Looking for Love in the Age of Divorce. More than half of the therapists who commented on Shapiro’s survey agreed that estimate is more or less accurate.
 
Together, Wolfers' and Shapiro’s findings suggest that more people than ever find themselves in unhappy marriages, but are sticking with them.
 
Some good will come of this tenacity: Fewer kids will live in broken homes. Fewer singles will struggle with their finances. Fewer men will die prematurely from bad eating habits and poor lifestyle choices (married men live longer, healthier lives than single men). And these benefits of married life might partially explain why people are staying together despite being dissatisfied with their mates.
 
But individuals might think twice about toughing it out if they were fully aware of the consequences of living in stressful marriages—at least, for the female half of each couple.
 
It turns out that the health benefits of staying married—even when unhappy—fall disproportionately to men. Sociologists Hui Liu and Linda Waite discovered that marital stress, particularly in older couples, correlated with greater incidence of cardiovascular disease in both men and women. But the correlation was much stronger in women. The researchers speculate that women bottle up negative feelings more than men, producing more stress and more damage to their cardiovascular systems.
 
Liu and Waite go on to point out that health effects of negative marriage quality increase steadily with age, indicating that cardiovascular damage from chronic martial stress may be cumulative. It may progress steadily as the unhappy marriage continues.
 
For the (apparently) growing number of women who find themselves in stressful marriages, these findings have a profound implication: The sooner women leave stressful marriages, the less cumulative damage they will do to their bodies. (Single women, it turns out, do not suffer from being alone nearly as much as men.)
 
On top of that, by leaving an unhealthy marriage, women have the opportunity to get into relationships that will improve, rather than degrade their health. According to recent research in psychoneuroimmunology, loving relationships promote stronger immune systems, lower levels of depression and anxiety, and lower heart rate and blood pressure. In other words, leaving a bad marriage—at least for women—can take away a negative while adding a positive.
 
This doesn’t mean that unhappy women should immediately call a divorce lawyer. Reaching out first to a marriage counselor who might help turn a stressful marriage into a supportive one is usually a better idea. But the sad truth is that more than half of all couples who go into counseling eventually split up, and even after “successful" counseling, marital stress often does not go away. Neither do the cumulative negative health effects of stress.
 
So it might be better if that apocryphal 50% divorce rate weren’t apocryphal. It's not a happy conclusion, but it is one grounded in statistics.

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