A person stuck in an unpleasant marriage faces only two options: stay married and miserable, or get divorced and become happy.
Sound logical? Well, reality differs.
Divorce often creates additional problems and pain that had formerly not existed, such as child custody, support payments, and heartbreak.
"While temporary happiness may be found," said Lysa Terkeurst, President of Proverbs 31 ministry and author of Who Holds the Key to Your Heart, "divorce causes death — it harms not only the spouses involved but also their children and friends."
Recently, a report by the Institute for American Values, a private, nonpartisan family think tank, challenged the divorce presupposition.
"In popular discussion and in scholarly literature, the assumption has always been that if a marriage is unhappy, if you get a divorce, it is likely you will be happier than if you stayed married," said David Blankenhorn of the Institute. "This is the first time this has been tested empirically, and [the tests show that] there is no evidence to support this assumption."
The Facts and Figures
Conducted by a team of leading family scholars headed by University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, the study analyzed the relationships between marriage, divorce and happiness. The research team used data collected by the National Survey of Family and Households that had interviewed 5,232 married adults in the late 1980s. Total reported unhappy marriages: 645. Five years later, 167 had divorced or separated, and 478 had remained married.
The research shows that unhappily married adults who had divorced were no happier than those who had stayed married. The 13 measures of well being include self-esteem, personal mastery, depression, purpose in life and alcohol drinks per day.
"Divorce leads to many ills including poverty, depression, poor health and a greater likelihood of suicide," said Bridget Maher, a policy analyst on marriage and family at the Family Research Council. "Divorced men have higher rates of mental illness and death due to accidents and suicide than married men. Also, divorced fathers who do not live with their children are more likely to engage in behaviors that compromise their health. A study of children's home environments found that divorced mothers are less able to provide the same level of emotional support to their children than married mothers."
The research also shows that the unhappiest marriages had encountered the most dramatic turnarounds when spouses addressed problems together, individual partners found ways to improve their own lives, or time simply passed. In each situation, commitment served as the underlying foundation for a lasting and often happy marriage.
"As a couples therapist for more than 20 years, these findings are consistent with my own clinical experiences," said Dr. Mark Goulston, an Assistant Clinical Professor at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. "Marriages end not because couples stop loving each other but because they can't stop hating each other. When couples find a way to excavate and work through the misunderstandings, hurt and disappointment that hardened into anger, they often discover that they still have a strong bond underneath…
"[What this means] is that people should give their marriage their absolute best effort before they call it quits. If they don't, they could end up with deep regrets and more unhappiness down the road."
Tolstoy Was Right
Nineteenth-century author Leo Tolstoy observed, "What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility."
The organization's report supports Tolstoy's claim: "A strong commitment to marriage as an institution and a powerful reluctance to divorce do not merely keep unhappily married people locked in misery together, they also help couples form a happier bond. To avoid divorce, many assume, marriages must become happier. But it is at least equally true that in order to get happier, unhappy spouses or couples must first avoid divorce."
While circumstances — such as physical abuse — may make divorce a necessary evil, it is still a tragedy, and like any other misfortune, divorce causes pain.
"Divorce is to adultery what price gouging is to armed robbery: essentially the same crime, varying only in degree of brutality," said Dr. David Crabtree, president of Gutenberg College. "Adultery is character assassination; it is the breaking of one's solemn promise; it is the treacherous betrayal of one's closest friend. Divorce involves the same kind of betrayal; it may be legal, but it is still nasty."
The prophet Malachi declares, "The LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. . . . 'I hate divorce,' says the LORD God of Israel" (Malachi 2:14,16; New International Version).
While addressing the issue from different angles, Tolstoy, Malachi and the Institute for American Values arrive at conclusions about divorce that square with reality: divorce is not the best solution. It is a tragedy.