Divorce brings no happiness, study says

By CHRISTIAN BOURGE, UPI Think Tanks Correspondent  |  July 31, 2002 at 5:15 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 31 (UPI) -- Conventional wisdom holds that people must leave an unhappy marriage to find personal peace and satisfaction. But a recent study published by a pro-family think tank found that this is not the case for the majority of Americans surveyed, and that most of those who stick with difficult marriages eventually find happiness in those relationships.

"If what people are looking for is relief from psychological pain, they are not getting it (through divorce)," said Linda J. Waite, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and the principal investigator for "Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings from a Study of Unhappy Marriages," a report examining the link between marriage and happiness.

"One of the themes that we took away is that unhappy marriages mostly don't stay that way," said Waite.

Critics of the study, however, believe that it does not accurately represent the research on which it was based, or the reality of happiness and marriage.

Billed as the first scholarly study to test assumptions about personal happiness and divorce, it was published by the New York-based Institute for American Values, which describes itself as a politically nonpartisan think tank "devoted to contributing intellectually to the renewal of marriage and family life and the sources of competence, character and citizenship."

The authors found that there is no evidence that unhappily married adults who get divorced typically become any happier than unhappily married people who stay together.

Waite believes that although divorce is necessary for some people in truly disastrous or violent marriages, some of the benefits of leaving one's spouse have been overstated.

"What we found is that people who were happily married and who became unmarried experienced declines in emotional well-being that were substantial and statistically significant," Waite told UPI.

"Those who divorced (and left unhappy marriages) and remarried look about the same as those who remained married (in unhappy situations)," said Waite. "There are not significant differences."

But Larry L. Bumpass, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin and co-author of the original research on which Waite's finding's were based, said that although he is personally pro-marriage, this study is driven by an underlying theme that is not wholly supported by the data.

"I am not anti-marriage," said Bumpass. "Nonetheless, analysis such as this often overstates the benefits of marriage in the name of advocacy."

Waite conducted the study along with Don Browning, professor emeritus of the University of Chicago Divinity School; William J. Doherty, director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota; Maggie Gallagher, an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values; Ye Luo, a research associate at the Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work at the University of Chicago; and Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.

Their research was based upon data collected as part of the National Survey of Family and Households -- the study that Bumpass worked on -- which measured personal and marital happiness among 5,232 married adults in two stages. The first stage covered 1987 through 1988,and the second covered 1992 through 1994. Among the respondents, 645 reported being unhappily married in the first stage of the survey.

Participants were asked to rate their overall marital happiness on a 7-point scale, with 1 being the least happy and 7 the happiest. In addition, they were asked to rate their own happiness in terms of 12 measures of psychological well-being.

Overall, Waite and her colleagues found that two-thirds of the unhappily married spouses surveyed who were still married at the second stage of the survey reported finding happiness with their spouses. The unhappiest marriages also reported the most drastic reversals.

In contrast, those who had divorced and either remarried or stayed single at the five year mark reported little significant change in their emotional state in the ensuing years.

The study has received a positive response from policy experts on all points of the political spectrum.

"I thought it was a very interesting analysis," said Freya L. Sonenstein, a sociologist who studies family issues at the left-leaning Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. "It may have some biases in it, but what they do is very interesting in terms of demonstrating that when unhappy people get divorced, it doesn't seem to improve their happiness."

She noted, however, that the authors accurately point out that there is no way of knowing from the data which came first -- individual misery and then marriage, or vice versa. She also questioned the methodology in the report, citing the lack of a full explanation of the methods of data analysis that were used.

When asked, Waite did give UPI a more detailed explanation of the study's methodology. But according to Bumpass -- who noted his overall respect for Waite's work -- the methodology is problematic.

"The questions I have on this paper come from the fact that important and underlying processes are being overstated or misrepresented," said Bumpass.

In examining the data, Waite and her colleagues found that when controlled for race, gender, income and other factors, divorce did not tend to reduce symptoms of depression or increase self-esteem, personal mastery over emotions, or overall happiness.

Perhaps most importantly, says Waite, is that among those who rated their marriages as very unhappy in the first stage of the survey, nearly 8 out of 10 who avoided divorce reported being happily married five years later. Apparently they had either dealt with whatever factors had caused their unhappiness or the factors had decreased, changed or disappeared.

In addition, they found that 74 percent of the divorces in the years between the two surveys took place between adults who reported being happily married in the first survey. These divorces were overwhelmingly associated with dramatic declines in happiness and psychological well-being, compared to those who had stayed married.

Another interesting finding, according to Waite, was that spouses tended to not see eye to eye in terms of the status of their marriages.

She said that 75 percent to 77 percent of the spouses who reported being unhappy in their marriages had spouses who reported being happy. Most happily married people, however, reported marital status in line with their spouses.

"What we found is that it is inaccurate to talk about unhappy marriages," said Waite. "It is more accurate to talk about unhappy spouses."

Bumpass takes issue with the fact that this was not reflected in the study's definition of unhappy marriage.

"They don't classify as an unhappy marriage those in which only one partner is unhappy," said Bumpass. "Yet one could argue that if one partner wants out of a marriage, it is not a happy marriage."

He believes it is also "very important" to note that the sharpest declines in happiness came among individuals whose partners wanted out while they did not. The average divorce in the survey was classifiable this way, he said.

Bumpass also criticized how the data were presented, citing the study's focus upon only the divorce rate.

"A more representative number is that 23 percent of the unhappily married broke up compared to just 9 percent of the happily married," said Bumpass. "The unhappy were two-and-a-half times more likely to break up in the six-year period."

As part of their own study, Waite and her fellow researchers conducted focus groups with 55 of the formerly unhappy husbands and wives polled in the surveys.

From these interviews and the other findings, they postulate that while divorce may eliminate some of the stresses and potential harms associated with a problem marriage, it creates others that can also affect emotional well-being. The problems created by divorce include the children's reaction, problems associated with custody and child support issues or other financial issues, as well as potential new relationships or marriages.

Patrick Fagan, a psychologist and research fellow in family and cultural issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation, believes that the findings published by the think tank underline a facet of human behavior that has been recognized by family therapists for years.

He says it is best demonstrated by those who go through multiple marriages and still do not find happiness after jumping from spouse to spouse. He noted that in time, some individuals finally realize that maybe is it not the partners they pick, but themselves who have the real problem.

Fagan believes that the study could be very important in the ongoing cultural debate over divorce and marriage.

"It has huge implications," said Fagan. "If this is replicated -- and I am sure others might test this -- it will probably have a corrective effect."

Fagan says that given the fact that the skyrocketing divorce rate and its subsequent leveling off was due at least partly to the view that one can find happiness in a second marriage, the findings of this study could go a long way toward demonstrating that that belief is "fantasy more than reality."

In terms of policy matters, he also believes that the study could be important in the debate over how and if government should be encouraging marriage. He says the study shows that there is validity in "putting money into helping people attain stable and healthy marriages."

Waite agreed with Fagan's analysis.

"My personal view ... is that we can give people support and encouragement, help and skills to development sustainable relationships, then everybody will be better off," said Waite.

Despite his support of the study, Fagan stressed that there is a need for other social scientists to look into these issues using a different data set, in order to prove the validity of these findings. Such a study could, however, be a long way off because there are no other existing data sets that can provide such detailed information on marital patterns and behaviors in the United States.

Sonenstein agreed that more research is needed to confirm the results, especially the issues raised in the post-survey interviews detailing how couples interpret and survive the bad times in their marriages as well as the stresses produced by divorce.

Bumpass noted that his ongoing research based upon the same survey data has found that the increase in overall emotional well-being that seems to come with marriage may not be unique to being married.

He said he has found that moving from being single to being married does increase individual happiness, but that moving from being single into co-habitation created similar levels of happiness for people.

"Perhaps it is the need for intimate relationships that increase happiness, and it is not unique to marriage itself," he says.

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