Often we think an unhappy couple has only two options:
- Stay together and be miserable.
- Get a divorce.
But there is a third option, and many couples successfully take this other road. In an exciting new study, couples participating in a national survey were asked to rate their marriage on a scale of one to seven, with one being very unhappy and seven being very happy. Those who rated their marriages a "one" had incredible turnarounds just five years later – if they stayed together. In fact, 77 percent of those giving their marriage a very unhappy "one" rated their marriage as a "seven" after five years.Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage (New York: Doubleday, 2000), p. 148. Was there some breakthrough therapy involved? No. In fact, many did relatively little – they just "stuck it out" and things got better.
As mentioned earlier, another study found that about 60 percent of marriages that ended in divorce were not bad marriages, but average.Amato and Booth, 1997, p. 220. They had average levels of positive interactions and average levels of conflict. Basically, these marriages were "good enough" but could be improved. Most marriages go through emotional ups and downs – times of great happiness and times of boredom and fatigue.
To have good marriages, we need to ride out the "lows" and learn from those times so that the relationship can be strengthened. If your relationship is at a low point and you wonder what happened to the spark, there is good news. It's not too late to revitalize your relationship.
What Makes Marriages Get Better?
Researchers followed up on those couples who rated their marriages as unhappy at first and happy five years later. Here's what the couples told them were the reasons for the dramatic turnaround:Linda J. Waite, Don Browning, William J. Doherty, Maggie Gallagher, Ye Luo and Scott Stanley, "Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings from a Study of Unhappy Marriages," Institute for American Values, 2002, http://americanvalues.org/search/item.php?id=13.
- Waiting. Since many couples have unhappy marriages due to outside pressures (like a job loss or the demands of young children), the passage of time changed those circumstances. Things just naturally got better again.
- Working at it. Many of the problems in marriage are a result of poor communication. Some couples told the researchers they simply learned to take small steps – like listening to each other – which resulted in happier marriages. For example, husbands learned to compliment wives, and wives learned to encourage husbands.
- Personal happiness/perspective change in one spouse. Sometimes, one spouse simply decided not to base all of his or her happiness on the mood of the other spouse. Instead, one spouse took up a hobby or simply made an attitude adjustment that allowed him or her to be more patient and accepting of the other.
- Credible threat of consequences for bad behavior. Some of the marriages were initially very unhappy because the husbands were engaged in "bad behaviors" – out late drinking with the boys, infidelity or even occasional abuse.While women are also known to exhibit these negative behaviors, in this particular study it was the men who were "misbehaving." Just as Dr. James Dobson advises in his book Love Must Be Tough, these wives took firm action and let their husbands know they would not tolerate such behavior. The husbands changed.
There are many ways to improve your marriage. Today, there are hundreds of tools focused on ways to build strong, healthy relationships. A few examples include weekend getaway-style marriage conferences by Family Life Today or Marriage Encounter, film series and seminars hosted by local churches under the title "Marriage Enrichment" and mentoring programs through local churches.