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Marriage

How Common Are "Loveless Marriages"?

Research suggests sticking it out may be healthier than separating.

Key points

  • Marital dissolution may increase psychological distress and decrease emotional well-being through its acrimonious nature.
  • Ending a marriage constitutes a sense of relational failure, which may reduce emotional well-being.
  • Couples who divorce or separate suffer decreased psychological well-being compared to couples who remain married.
vdnhieu / Pixabay
Source: vdnhieu / Pixabay

Years ago, a racy billboard in Chicago featuring two scantily clad individuals grabbed headlines nationwide, advertising “Life Is Short. Get a Divorce.”i It was removed after one week. Still, its message continues to generate controversy about the appropriate response to marital discord or disillusionment.

Will divorce facilitate a better life? Many partners seem to think so as they head down to the family court, complaining they are “not happy.” So, are they happy after they divorce? Research reveals some relevant results for anyone considering divorce as the solution to an “unhappy” marriage.

The Feeling of Falling in and Out of Love

You are likely familiar with research indicating a happy marriage's emotional and psychological benefits. But what about the other extreme: Is there such a thing as a loveless marriage? Certainly, most people would argue this characterization defeats the purpose of tying the knot.

Barring some arranged marriage or union of convenience, walking down the aisle is the culmination of love developed and designed to last a lifetime.

Aside from cases of abuse or infidelity, when partners merely decide they have “fallen out of love,” are they right? Or have they merely stumbled into challenging times? Research provides some insight.

The Emotion of Matrimony: A Preference for Permanence

Linda J. Waite et al. examined the impact of divorce on psychological well-being.ii Investigating several different hypotheses regarding how divorce affects the well-being of individuals in unhappy marriages, they found strong and consistent support only for the theory that couples who divorce or separate suffer decreased psychological well-being compared to couples who remain married. This decrease in well-being might occur through several different methods.

Waite et al. explained that marital dissolution might enhance psychological distress and decrease emotional well-being through its acrimonious nature, often characterized by high levels of interpersonal conflict, leading to emotional distress. They noted that marital disruption could reduce former spouses' economic position, creating financial problems that may negatively impact emotional well-being.

They further pointed out that the disruption and animosity accompanying the divorce process may create emotional and behavioral problems for a couple’s children, which in turn creates distress for parents. Finally, they noted that ending a marriage constitutes a sense of relational failure, which may reduce emotional well-being, often until (and unless) an ex-spouse begins a new relationship.

Regarding social support, Waite et al. explained that because marriage is viewed as a central source of support, divorce may weaken or destroy support networks, adversely impacting the ability to cope and thereby increasing emotional distress. Consequently, they found general support for their hypothesis that emotional well-being tends to deteriorate across a range of dimensions following a marital disruption.

Does it matter whether a couple feels trapped in a “loveless” marriage? Regarding marriage quality before dissolution, Waite et al. found that in couples who rated their marriage as unhappy, they found no differences in emotional well-being on most measures between those who divorced versus those who remained married. They did not find that disruption of an unhappy marriage led to improved emotional well-being, even among individuals who experienced violence within their marriage. There was no case in which couples who divorced or separated experienced a higher level of well-being than those who remained married. On some measures, they exhibited decreased well-being.

The bottom line appears that contrary to any advertised quick fix, divorce is not the magic solution to an unhappy marriage. Emotional well-being may be maintained or improved for couples and their families through exploring alternate methods of conflict resolution and focusing on enhancing positive communication.

Facebook image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

References

[i] https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna18578890.

[ii] Waite, Linda J., Ye Luo, and Alisa C. Lewin. 2009. “Marital Happiness and Marital Stability: Consequences for Psychological Well-Being.” Social Science Research 38 (1): 201–12. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2008.07.001.

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