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Divorcees less likely to be happy, study says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–People who divorce their spouses when marriages get rocky are less likely to find happiness than those who stay married, according to a recent study by a team of leading family scholars.

The study, the first of its kind, found no evidence that unhappily married adults who divorced were typically any happier than unhappily married people who stayed married. Researchers, led by University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, also determined that two-thirds of unhappily married spouses who stayed married reported that their marriages were happy five years later.

Divorce did not typically reduce symptoms of depression or raise self-esteem, the study found.

The authors of the study said that divorce, while eliminating some stresses and sources of potential harm, may create other problems — such as adverse reactions of children; issues in custody, child support and visitation orders; new financial or health stresses for one or both parents; and the uncertainty of new relationships or marriages.

Researchers also concluded that many currently happily married spouses have had extended periods of marital unhappiness, often for reasons including alcoholism, infidelity, verbal abuse, emotional neglect, depression, illness and work reversals.

Three broad headings may be used to identify ways that marriages that were once unhappy got happier, according to the study.

— The marital endurance ethic: over time, couples endured their problems and saw a resolution of such issues as financial problems, job reversals, depression, child problems and even infidelity.

— The marital work ethic: spouses actively worked to solve problems, change behavior or improve communication within their marriages through arranging more time together, enlisting help of relatives or close friends or consulting counselors.

— The personal happiness ethic: marriage problems don’t seem to change dramatically, but individuals do. Spouses reported finding alternative ways to improve their own happiness and build a happy life despite a disappointing marriage.

Couples who stayed together and became happier invested themselves in overcoming problems, minimized the importance of difficulties they could not resolve, and actively worked to reduce the attractiveness of alternatives.

“In most cases, a strong commitment to staying married not only helps couples avoid divorce, it helps more couples achieve a happier marriage,” said research team member Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.

The study debunks the popularly held notion that divorce is the answer to marital unhappiness.

“In popular discussion, 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,” David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values said in the July 11 issue of USA Today. “This is the first time this has been tested empirically, and there is no evidence to support this assumption.”

The data, presented July 12 in Arlington, Va., at the “Smart Marriage” conference sponsored by the Coalition for Marriage, Families and Couples Education, was collected by the National Survey of Family and Households, a nationally representative survey that extensively measures personal and marital happiness. Of 5,232 married adults interviewed in the late 1980s, 645 reported being unhappily married. Five years later, the same adults, whether divorced, separated or still married, were interviewed again as the database for the study.

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