Marriage: The Leading Cause of Divorce, or the Number One Cause of Connubial Bliss?
| My theory for the past several months has touted the blessings of divorce. I have frequently said, much to my mother’s chagrin, that her going-on-thirty-year marriage to my father is the reason I am such am advocate for divorce. Watching their perpetual misery has given me a somewhat bitter view of the sanctity of marriage, the overwhelming affect of religion and religious views on marriage, and has completely concreted my belief that marriage is the definition of insanity.
Yet recent events have me questioning myself: a bitter and brutal separation from my second marriage, the ex moving on to start a new family, and the beginnings of what are turning out to be emotional and cruel custody battles for our son. So what is the point of marriage? Is marriage really the key to happiness, as so many love to say? And is traditional marriage the only (or best) answer? I have maintained for a while that the “destruction” of the traditional family has more pros than cons, and that marriage is barely now evolving into what it should be, but I’m willing to admit that I could be wrong.
Quoting the U.S. Census Bureau, Cristen Conger states that “more adults are living the single life thanks…to a higher divorce rate.” She continues: “[A]ccording to…data, ninety percent more single person households existed in 2005 than in 1970” (David Beckwith). The amount of studies toting the fact that married people are happier, that they “…earn more money and live longer than singles,” and that it “promote[s] better health” (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) shade a not-so-pretty picture for those millions of singles mentioned above. The fact that nearly fifty percent of current marriages are ending in divorce is even more dismal. And yet, “psychologists have pointed to marriage as the single most reliable happiness indicator” (Conger).
I am not buying it. I’ve seen too many miserable (seemingly, albeit) marriages to believe that this is universal. More studies pop up constantly which swear that “Married Couples with Children are Happiest,” and “the more children, the higher the level of satisfaction” (Elena Gordon). My radar is ticking off some heavy Christian influence, but as the information piles up, my depression sets in.
Sociologist Linda Waite, whose name pops up quite a bit as she is referenced by many of these studies, “found no evidence that unhappily married adults who divorced were typically any happier than married people who stayed married.” Going on, the article states that “researchers…found that two-thirds of unhappily married spouses who stayed married reported that their marriages were HAPPY [emphasis added by myself] five years later…In addition the most unhappy marriages reported the most dramatic turnarounds: among these…8 out of 10 were happily married five years later.”
Allow me to crack a beer. The study contests that “[e]ven unhappy spouses who had divorced and remarried were no happier, on average, than those who had stayed married” (Waite). If that was not the most depressing evidence to find in my twice-divorced-from-two-completely-dysfunctional-marriages state of mind, I had no choice but to read on…and crack another beer.
Something about this article, written by Linda Waite and citing her own study, caught my attention though. The tips for “marriage survival” were like someone had found the cue-cards my parents received when they exchanged vows. “Marital Endurance Ethic: marriages got happier not because partners resolved problems, but because they stubbornly outlasted them.” “Work Ethic,” a tip which does actually address working through and solving problems, but with “clergy…counselors…[or] divorce attorneys.” My favorite, though, is the “Personal Happiness Epic” tip: “…marriage problems did not seem to change…[I]nstead married people…[found] alternative ways to…build a good and happy life despite a mediocre marriage.”
To be fair, if my goal was a “mediocre marriage,” or happiness “despite” that marriage, I would have continued to read the divorce-bashing curriculum outlining that “a powerful reluctance to divorce…do[es] not merely keep unhappily married people locked in misery together. [It] also help[s] couples form happier bonds.”
Waite’s name came up again in a refreshingly new context. Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller reviewed Waite’s book The Case for Marriage, co-authored by J. Gallagher. They state “Waite and Gallagher’s primary source…about unmarried couples is the book American Couples, which was published 18 years ago...American Couples co-author, Pepper Schwartz cautions against relying on [her own] research [from] two decades ago to draw conclusions…” about modern day couples.
The difficulty in finding wide-ranging research into marriage in today’s technology was completely baffling. The ease in finding repeated figures showing that marriage=happiness (usually citing the same twenty year old sources, regardless of when the new “study” was done) in today’s information-savvy world began to irritate me. Pages in to the search results, I began to find information that, while not all of it was “new,” I certainly had not run across it yet. James McConvill was quite refreshing is his article, “Let’s talk about happiness…and sex.” He postulates a very different reason for conjugal bliss: “According to a May 2004 report by David Blanchflower and Andres J. Oswald, Money, Sex and Happiness: An Empirical Study, increasing a person’s sexual activity from once a month to once a week has roughly the same effect on a person’s happiness as a $US50,000 pay increase.” Oswald continues to quote the study by noting “that married people are generally having 30 per cent [sic] more sex than those who are unmarried.”
So, “happiness” in general keeps coming up, yet the key to unlocking that age old idea is still a mystery. I sifted through a total of probably thirty links in my searches to websites that could sell you happiness, before, during and after marriage. “Happiness after Divorce” is something people pay top dollar for. But if there were so many “cures” for sell, why could I not seem to find anything really telling me whether marriage or divorce, being single or cohabitating, is statistically better? It is definitely apparent however, that marriage longevity mirrors several different “happiness” indicators by state and region across the U.S. “Tacoma, Washington had one of the highest divorce rate[s] coupled with one of the highest unemployment rates. Las Vegas has the highest divorce rate overall, a high suicide rate, and a large alcohol problem” (Sperling).
I was intrigued by the concept of successful marriage as a geographical issue rather than an emotional one. Several studies diagrammed divorce rates across the nation by looking at religious factors. There is definitely a link between liberal attitudes and successful marriage. Divorce rates, according to both the Census Bureau and the Associated Press, are highest in the Bible Belt and lowest in regions (the North East, and the West) where liberal ideas and governments are dominant. “Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma round out the top five [below Nevada] in frequency of divorce…the divorce rates in those conservative states are roughly 50 percent above the national average” (Barna Group). Correspondingly, divorce rates are the lowest in states that have legalized gay marriage. Worse for those toting “traditional marriage” viewpoints and standards based on religious views, the more religious the couple, the less likely the marriage will succeed. Evangelical Christians top the chart with thirty-four percent divorce rates, Baptists are second at twenty-nine – and Atheists and Agnostics bring in the rear with rates under twenty-one percent. “[P]eople…with conservative views toward gender roles tend to have less marital happiness, less marital interaction, and more marital problems than couples who have a more egalitarian view of marriage,” according to Hanna Selicson. She wrote A Little Bit Married, which “focuses on the trend for people to be in long-term unmarried relationships…” She continues by high-lighting the most important factors in maintaining long-term relationships as “feeling understood” and achieving “higher levels of positive communication.”
In my Interpersonal Communications course, the family structure is closely examined. Everything that brings happiness, success, and longevity to the family unit, according to the authors Beebe, Beebe, and Redmond, pivots around the ability to communicate effectively. The “ten factors of good communication” are: “openness, maintenance of structural stability, expression of affection, emotional/instrumental support, mind reading (knowing what the other person is thinking and feeling), politeness, discipline (clear rules and consequences), humor and sarcasm, regular routine interaction,” and “avoidance of personal and hurtful topics.” Moreover, among the “eight qualities exhibited by functional families” are two steps that go a little farther: “more compassion and less cruelty,” and “there is self-restraint.”
Could a successful marriage boil down to such a basic principle as communication? Or is it just the higher sex rate between married couples as mentioned before? Two comprehensive studies were done in Germany, based off of the same research. In a thirty page publication called “Happily Ever After? Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce and Happiness in Germany,” by Anke C. Zimmerman and Richard A Easterlain, I finally found comprehensive research that spanned fifteen years. Psychologists and scientists, when they released their findings, blew all of the “marriage=happiness” studies out of the water. They established a “base-line,” an emotional point a person makes and establishes as they mature. The scientists measure the overall feeling of well being contrasted to this base-line. The first questionnaire is filled out two years before marriage (not a foreseeable marriage, but they started with enough people to be able to succeed with 155 for the study, and a control group for comparison). “The psychiatrists’ conclusion is that ‘on average, people adapt quickly and completely to marriage.’” Adaptation has a slightly different connotation in this study: “Adaptation here means not that one adjusts to difficulties encountered in living with a partner, but that the hedonic gains from forming a union are transient and quickly disappear.” This is the “set-point theory,” which sees individuals as “adapting fully to all kinds of life-circumstances – job promotion, serious accident, death of a partner, and so on.” Not only do these studies change the aspect of measuring happiness in and out of marriage by expanding the parameters, but to set pre-marriage comparisons has never been done before.
There is undeniable proof of a two year honeymoon period immediately after marriage, so data is taken from “two years before marriage (to establish the pre-marriage base-line of satisfaction) and two years after marriage (to test whether there is a return to baseline satisfaction after the ‘honeymoon period.’”
There is proof that the subjective levels of ‘happiness’ spike after marriage; however, they also spike when couples move in together. After two years of marriage, the spike in happiness does return to just above the “base-line.” Interestingly, although there is no spike after the initial one in cohabitating couples, the levels of happiness in both married and cohabitating couples end up about the same: slightly higher than the base-line. “Evidence is considerable that the formation of a cohabitating union has a positive impact on life satisfaction, similar to marriage.”
After death and divorce, a person takes an average of five years to return to their base-line of happiness; the time to “adapt” is the same for both. The ability to find/create/achieve happiness and success in relationships is a fascinating concept tackled in extensive testing in this study. The psychologists attest that “the ability to adapt to changes (and therefore maintain higher levels of happiness) is determined by genetics and personality…[M]ajor life transitions and events merely deflect a person temporarily from this level.” The more predispositioned a person is toward happiness, the more likely to sustain and maintain a happy marriage.
Yet compatibility is touted as the “crucial element in life satisfaction.” The type of union is not as important as finding the “right partner.” So if being a happy person is vital to making a happy marriage…
It seems that each of us is first responsible for our own levels of happiness before we can even begin to hope for a successful relationship, let alone a long and prosperous marriage. No, Ms. Waite, “marriage won’t magically create happiness.” And it seems that all of us single folks out here will have to “make personal character development during the single years” (Fley).
There is no magic answer. There are no statistics or proof of something being more likely to work. Yes, marriage is the leading cause of divorce…and yes, it can be the reason for connubial bliss. All that I can do, however, is use these incredible opportunities of being single to focus on being happy and on finding and embracing what makes me happy. Lasting love…that will come when I am ready.