- A study showed that unhappily married adults who divorced were no happier than unhappily married adults who stayed married.
- Divorce did not typically reduce symptoms of depression, raise self-esteem, or increase a sense of mastery.
- Divorce or separation is likely the best outcome in a destructive marriage.
- Many unhappy marriages in the study improved in five years.
If you are facing or contemplating divorce, you are probably wondering whether you’ll be happier when it is done. When asking if you will be happier after divorce, there are several things to consider.
Who makes the decision: If you are the one who decides to divorce, you probably believe that it will allow you to be happier. You envision a better time ahead. If you didn’t see the divorce coming, you are probably shocked, stricken, or angry and may dread the future.
Gender differences: Research has shown that outcomes are different for men and women, as you’ll read below.
Happiness is subjective and not easy to measure, varying over time. Some research shows that happiness increases over time.
Other factors include the length of the marriage, whether you have children, your age, and the reasons for the divorce.
Why the Answer Might Be “No”
A 2002 study by University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite found that, on average, unhappily married adults who divorced were no happier than unhappily married adults who stayed married when rated on 12 separate measures of psychological well-being. Divorce did not typically reduce symptoms of depression, raise self-esteem, or increase a sense of mastery. However, Waite also stated that divorce or separation is likely the best outcome in a destructive marriage, such as when there is abuse, addiction, or multiple betrayals. She noted that 81 percent of those who remarried were happier in their next marriage.
Divorce alone will not solve mental-health issues such as depression or self-esteem. You’ll need to work on how you got into this predicament, why you chose this spouse, what you did wrong, and what you can learn about yourself in self-reflection that will improve your next relationships.
Why is this the case? My work with clients shows that those who struggle after divorce often have regrets. My clients have asked themselves:
- “Should I have worked harder on the relationship? Did I give up too soon? Did I miss the cues from my spouse that she was unhappy?”
- “Has the divorce damaged my children? Would my kids be happier now if we’d stayed together? Does my divorce doom them to future poor relationships? Are they suffering?”
- “The conflict between me and my ex is even worse now. I thought divorce would end the conflict, but it seems we are still often arguing about the kids, money, or custody time.”
- “Will I be alone forever? Will I ever find a healthy long-term relationship?”
For these clients, life is harder in many ways—financially, emotionally, and practically.
Is unhappiness temporary? Waite reported that many unhappy marriages in her study improved in five years. She attributed this to partners simply not giving up, which she called the “marital endurance ethic.” Perhaps over time, partners resign themselves to an unhappy relationship that isn’t “destructive” enough to leave.
Are You a “Quitter” if You Leave an Unhappy Marriage?
A bad marriage is hard on your health. You are not happy, so your physical and mental health suffers. A person who stays in a bad marriage faces a weakened immune system, which leads to an increased risk of diabetes, heart attack, and cancer. The chronic stress of an unhappy relationship takes a toll.
If you have tried therapy and worked on the relationship with commitment and are still unhappy, you probably won’t regret your decision to divorce. Getting therapy before deciding to divorce can help achieve more positive outcomes if you do decide to divorce. And no, you are not a quitter.
These are the primary reasons people stay in unhappy marriages:
- Financial security
- Anxiety and fear
- The stigma of divorce; shame
- Hope that things will improve
Why You Might Be Happier After Divorce
Women fare better than men.
A study by Kingston University in the UK found that despite the negative financial impact of divorce on women, they are generally happier than men after divorce. Women are more likely to seek help from therapy and positive support from friends and are less likely to turn to alcohol, drugs, or casual sex to escape the pain.
Traits of People, Including Men, Who Are Happier After Divorce
- An ability to compromise to end the conflict.
- A willingness to work through the experience of marriage and divorce in therapy.
- Building a strong support system of friends and family you can depend on.
- An ability to let go of anger through self-care and forgiveness practices.
- An ability to take accountability for how you contributed to the ending of the marriage.
- A realistic and optimistic way of looking at the future as you look forward to new opportunities and experiences.
What I Have Learned From My Happier Clients After Divorce
Many people experience a sense of liberation from the constraints of an abusive or toxic relationship. (Marie says, “I am healthier now than ever, such a relief!”) Happier clients talk about the freedom to make their own decisions and the independence to pursue their own interests without compromising or sacrificing for the other. Sometimes I hear about the freedom from having care for another immature, irresponsible, or dependent adult. (Alex says, “My wife was like my third child.”)
Some cite a sense of simplicity and peace where there had been chronic tension and conflict. (“I can go to sleep when I want to, get up when I want, and no one is demanding anything from me.”) Some clients have restarted or begun new careers, redefining their identity and pursuing what makes them happy.
Often clients tell me how important it is to be able to slow down and focus on themselves. A key to happiness for many is to reconnect with friends and reclaim interests they neglected or gave up.
The Conclusion: Divorce Alone Will Not Make You Happy
The process of unwinding a marriage is painful. But if you build on the positive traits above, and work on how you got into this situation, why you chose this spouse, what you did wrong in the relationship, and what you learn about yourself in self-reflection, you may find the happiness you seek.
© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2023
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