Does divorce make people happy?

One of the most common and typically unchallenged assumptions about divorce is that despite all of the destruction it causes it at least makes people happier.  Specifically, there is a feminist presumption that divorce makes women happier.  Given the unfair nature of divorce laws and family court and the incentives the system offers to encourage women to divorce, this at first glance would seem like a reasonable assumption.  Divorce should presumably drain off the most unhappy marriages, leaving the average married couple happier.  But the data presented by the National Marriage Project (P 67 Fig 4) shows the opposite occurring:

Note that men and women were both happier with their marriages before feminists “fixed” marriage.  This is especially surprising given the reduced social pressure for couples to marry following unexpected pregnancy.  Abortion, readily available birth control, and acceptance of single motherhood have all but eliminated the “shotgun wedding”.  In addition, with women having greater education and opportunity in the workforce they are under far less pressure to marry for economic reasons, as is borne out by the trend of women delaying marriage.  Yet even with fewer presumably bad marriages entering the system and more unhappy ones exiting, married men and women are both less likely to report being very happy in their marriage.  Something very powerful is clearly going on.

But this trend in itself isn’t proof that those who divorce aren’t made happier by it.  What we need to evaluate is whether unhappily married people who divorce are happier than unhappily married people who choose to remain married.  A team of sociologists lead by a professor from the University of Chicago has done this, and their findings destroy the conventional wisdom on divorce (press release and full study).  From the Executive Summary:

  • Unhappily married adults who divorced or separated were no happier, on average, than unhappily married adults who stayed married. Even unhappy spouses who had divorced and remarried were no happier, on average, than unhappy spouses who stayed married. This was true even after controlling for race, age, gender, and income.
  • Divorce did not reduce symptoms of depression for unhappily married adults, or raise their self-esteem, or increase their sense of mastery, on average, compared to unhappy spouses who stayed married. This was true even after controlling for race, age, gender, and income.
  • The vast majority of divorces (74 percent) happened to adults who had been happily married five years previously. In this group, divorce was associated with dramatic declines in happiness and psychological well-being compared to those who stayed married.
  • Unhappy marriages were less common than unhappy spouses. Three out of four unhappily married adults were married to someone who was happy with the marriage.
  • Staying married did not typically trap unhappy spouses in violent relationships.  Eighty-six percent of unhappily married adults reported no violence in their relationship (including 77 percent of unhappy spouses who later divorced or separated). Ninety-three percent of unhappy spouses who avoided divorce reported no violence in their marriage five years later.
  • Two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce or separation ended up happily married five years later. Just one out of five of unhappy spouses who divorced or separated had happily remarried in the same time period.

But could it be that those who choose to remain married are fundamentally different than those who choose divorce?  They address this question directly:

Does this mean that most unhappy spouses who divorced would have ended up happily married if they had stuck with their marriages? We cannot say for sure. Unhappy spouses who divorced were younger, more likely to be employed and to have children in the home. They also had lower average household incomes than unhappy spouses who stayed married. But these differences were typically not large. In most respects, unhappy spouses who divorced and unhappy spouses who stayed married looked more similar than different (before the divorce) in terms of their psychological adjustment and family background.

One might assume, for example, that unhappy spouses who divorce and those who stay married are fundamentally two different groups; i.e., that the marriages that ended in divorce were much worse than those that survived. There is some evidence for this point of view. Unhappy spouses who divorced reported more conflict and were about twice as likely to report violence in their marriage than unhappy spouses who stayed married.  However, marital violence occurred in only a minority of unhappy marriages: Twenty-one percent of unhappily married adults who divorced reported husband-to-wife violence compared to nine percent of unhappy spouses who stayed married.

Note that those who chose divorce were typically younger than those who stuck it out.  Since we know that younger divorcées are far more likely than older ones to be able to remarry, the stats on the likelihood of the two groups to be happily married after 5 years (last bullet point above) are especially compelling.

So what was the secret of those who held it together to ultimately become more happy than had they divorced?

Many currently happily married spouses have had extended periods of marital unhappiness, often for quite serious reasons, including alcoholism, infidelity, verbal abuse, emotional neglect, depression, illness, and work reversals. Why did these marriages survive where other marriages did not? The marital endurance ethic appears to play a big role. Many spouses said that their marriages got happier, not because they and their partner resolved problems but because they stubbornly outlasted them.  With time, they told us, many sources of conflict and distress eased. Spouses in this group also generally had a low opinion of the benefits of divorce, as well as friends and family members who supported the importance of staying married.

The secret to a happy marriage turns out to be extremely simple;  stop thinking about divorce!  This is why it is so critical to choose wisely when marrying.  All marriages will run into rough waters;  marriage will only work if both sides are fully committed to the institution.  They also specifically tell us that marriage counseling wasn’t the solution:

Spouses who turned their marriages around seldom reported that counseling played a key role. When husbands behaved badly, value-neutral counseling was not reported by any spouse to be helpful.  Instead wives in these marriages appeared to seek outside help from others to pressure the husband to change his behavior. Men displayed a strong preference for religious counselors over secular counselors, in part because they believed these counselors would not encourage divorce.

Their finding that the secret to a happy marriage is in large part due to an unwillingness to entertain divorce has been corroborated in a separate study.  This is also an observation which Terry Breathing Grace made in the comments section to a previous post:

Surely you agree that abuse notwithstanding, the standard must be that marriage is for keeps. I can only speak for my own relationship when I say this, but in our marriage, the absence of an easy exit has made the rough patches significantly shorter and farther apart than they would be if either of us had harbored fantasies of how much easier it would be if we threw in the towel.

It’s amazing how quickly you can see the good in your mate and understand that happiness comes from within when you know that the mate you have today is the one you’ll have tomorrow, barring the unexpected tragedy of death.

The basic premise is also born out by other studies of general happiness.  Harvard psychology professor Dr. Daniel Gilbert has written about why not reconsidering one’s choice of spouse makes men and women happier with their marriages (H/T Dex):

Consider the choice to marry one sweetheart over another. If you pick the genial, down-to-earth banker, will you forever regret letting go of that free-spirited artist who loves traveling as much as you? Probably not. The very fact that you’ll be living with — and experiencing — one spouse and not the other means that the passed-over option will quickly fade in your mind. “The people you don’t marry don’t move in with you,” says Gilbert.

Envisioning what life would have been like with an alternate spouse becomes difficult and increasingly irrelevant as you settle into the life you’ve selected. “Once you make a choice in life, the unchosen alternatives evaporate,” he says. According to Gilbert’s earlier research, which he featured in his 2006 book, Stumbling on Happiness, when faced with an irrevocable decision, people are happier with the outcome than when they have the opportunity to change their minds. “It’s a very powerful phenomenon,” he says. “This is really the difference between dating and marriage.”

This effect is removed however if one continues to reconsider the choice to remain married, as women are constantly encouraged to do:

But what if the person you didn’t marry moved in next door? Suddenly your attention isn’t completely collapsed on your own marriage, and every day you can witness the alternative life you overlooked.

The irony here is that the safety valve which feminists and others fought so hard for to avoid women being trapped in unhappy marriages has made women both less happily married and more likely to be unhappily divorced.

The escape route is the disaster.

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This entry was posted in Choice Addiction, Data, Divorce, Feminists, Finding a Spouse, Marriage, Post Marital Spinsterhood, Remarriage Strike, Scientific Paper, selling divorce. Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to Does divorce make people happy?

  1. AC says:

    Great post.

  2. lunchmeat says:

    Most people are completely un self aware and unwilling to own their actions. They’re not adults and did not enter into an adult agreement when they chose to marry.

    Because they won’t take ownership of their actions, they look around for outside agencies to make their decisions for them. This is fueled by an economy that benefits from divorce. The women who choose divorce are just pawns but they can’t see it.

    One woman follows her bliss thinking it will solve her personal unhappiness and then her friends follow suit. And target and walmart sell more crap furnishing the husband’s new apartment.

    I didn’t see if you linked the study that shows divorce following social groups, but it also proves this point.

    Great post, dalrock. I have more thoughts on this but trying to post from my phone is painful.

    [D: Thanks. I went through the study you mentioned a while ago. As you point out, it reinforces the point of this post.]

  3. lunchmeat says:

    Also the choice not taken, (the neighbor) the one that weakens decisions, is basically facebook. We are constantly bathed in messages that diminish lasting relationships of any kind. Long term relationships hold us accountable to our actions.

  4. slumlord says:

    Five stars Dalrock.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Absolutely!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Well, your thesis about the subject, actually… I sure know getting divorced didn’t make me any happier

  7. Gorbachev says:

    So, …

    Easy divorce males people give up when they don’t need to.

    Well. D’uh.

    Oh, I forgot – we need to make that point these days.

  8. Eric says:

    Dalrock;

    The problem with these kinds of surveys is that they are dependent upon the people who respond to them telling the truth. The fact that women sue for divorce far more than men do alone proves that they are lying about being ‘unhappy'; just like they are lying about not wanting to get divorced in the first place. In fact, if anything, the divorce statistics rather seem to suggest that women marry for the express purpose of later divorcing, regardless of what women say to the contrary.

    Women lose nothing by divorce. The men forfeit the children, most of his assets, and alimony—not to mention that divorced men are stigmatized as losers and failures in our culture, regardless of who was at fault. To women, it is simply a matter of filing papers, collecting a check, and moving on to the next available penis. Divorced women, on the other hand, are not stigmatized, they can play the victim (like they’re doing in this survey) by pretending that they are ‘unhappy'; ‘it wasn’t their fault'; ‘OMG, my kid needs a dad’ &c—all of which reinforces her ego that all men are pigs and women are always noble martyrs who deserve better.

    There is no reason why divorce should make a woman feel unhappy or depressed since she’s done all that her feminist education demanded: simultaneously proven that she doesn’t need a man and punished her husband vicariously in a single action.

    The survey didn’t go far enough on these points. I’d have asked the oh-so-sorry ‘fair sex’ if they felt so unhappy, depressed, and guilty, would they be willing to leave their bad-boy lovers and return to their husbands? You’d have a more accurate sense of their true feelings with questions like that!

  9. Paige says:

    If anything they have the incentive to lie about being happy so it doesn’t look like they made a mistake by getting a divorce.

    The fact is that doing what feels good in the moment doesn’t always make us happy in the long run. Almost all major religions have been telling us that for centuries. It is hardly a surprise to see it reflected in surveys.

    [D: Well put Paige.]

  10. Dalrock says:

    @Eric

    The problem with these kinds of surveys is that they are dependent upon the people who respond to them telling the truth. The fact that women sue for divorce far more than men do alone proves that they are lying about being ‘unhappy’; just like they are lying about not wanting to get divorced in the first place. In fact, if anything, the divorce statistics rather seem to suggest that women marry for the express purpose of later divorcing, regardless of what women say to the contrary.

    I don’t think that many women consciously follow the path of first forcing marriage and then forcing divorce. However, the fact is it very often seems to work out this way. I think the problem is more insidious in that women are following the incentives at each step of the way, ignoring both their own solemn promises and the wellbeing of their spouse and their children. All the while their hamster is spinning a plausible enough reason for why they just happen to be defrauding the man.

    But this still doesn’t mean women are actually happy with the results. They make the decision to divorce based on the information they have at the time. Often times the choice is an emotional one, not a logical one. I think I have demonstrated rather conclusively that women are fed (and agree to be fed) a view of divorce which bears little resemblance with reality. If anything, as Paige pointed out the woman would have every reason to claim they were happier after divorce in order to justify her choice. If she acknowledges she was happier when married then she has to admit she frivolously divorced. It is extremely rare that divorcées acknowledge that they made a bad choice.

    Also, the structure of the survey helps in this regard. It was a sort of mini longitudinal survey. They interviewed a group of people twice and asked them the same sets of questions each time. The context should have limited any attempts at rationalization. From page 9 of the full study:

    We tested the assumption that divorce is better for adults than staying in an unhappy marriage by analyzing data from the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH), a nationally representative database used by scholars. NSFH asked a large national sample of adults about both the happiness of their marriage (“marital happiness”) and about their happiness with their life in general (personal or “global” happiness). The survey also measured symptoms associated with depression and other indicators of psychological well-being, including self-esteem and sense of personal mastery, as well as a wealth of other information about marital quality (including domestic violence) and demographic variables (age, race, income, education, etc.). The same people were interviewed in both the late ’80s and five years later. This allows us to track the consequences of divorce versus staying in an unhappy marriage on an individual’s personal happiness, on average, using nationally representative data.15
    Using NSFH data we were able to look specifically at what happened to adults who rated their marriages as unhappy as they later divorced and separated or stayed together.

  11. Stephenie Rowling says:

    Does divorce make people happy?
    Yes…Lawyers.

  12. PT Barnum says:

    I’d say it has pushed up the “average happiness” of the still married up. Given the economic devastation that has occurred in the last 40 years a trivial drop of less than 10% in happiness is very, very small. I’d even say that the current numbers are artificially inflated by the “YOU BETTER BE HAPPY OR YOU ARE A LOSER!” stasi of America. Really, 60% of people are “very happy” in their marriages? MORE THAN HALF. That’s really, really high. Not rare, common as dirt. If that were true, I really doubt that there would be the current marriage strike. That’s like a 30% chance of being VERY HAPPY with marriage at any given point on the wedding day for an average man who has made no attempts at screening.

    I mean really? Did the man who you got this have a white coat on? Was it a very white white coat? Did he wield a very precise slide rule and have a golden pocket-protector?

    It really does sound like we have another sighting of the The White Coated Man. Why so many people listen to him I have no idea.

  13. dannyfrom504 says:

    i can’t concieve that divorce makes people happy since divorce equates failure, and most people aren’t to happy to admit to making a mistake. unhappy people getting married then divorcing will make for unhappy divorces’ naturally.

    my mother (rightouesly) divorced my father. he was a demon, and i was a happy 10 year old when we finally left his house. and even under the awful situation she was in: my mother was disappointed in herself. i’d like to believe in the altruism of humanity in such that ALL persons ache when marriages fail, but within american society…..i can’t be too sure.

  14. aspiringlady says:

    I am curious as to what happened to make men so happy and women so unhappy with their marriages between 1987-1991? I guess I don’t know very much history.

  15. aspiringlady says:

    Was it Reagan and the cold war related?

  16. Anonymous Reader says:

    I am curious as to what happened to make men so happy and women so unhappy with their marriages between 1987-1991? I guess I don’t know very much history.

    The leading edge of the Baby Boom was born in 1946-47, and a lot more were born in the next 5 years or so. Therefore, the eldest of the Boomers were turning forty in those years. Perhaps that is part of the issue.

  17. Sojourner says:

    I can certainly say divorce hasn’t made me any happier by itself. In fact I’d say it’s almost yin and yang at this point. The memories or nostalgia can drive me wild when dwelled upon enough but my sheer stubborness not to repeat the same mistakes, the desire to better myself and just enjoy life (nevermind the wisdom that has come from the situation) has allowed me to experience some measure of happiness. Or at least hope. But ultimately the situation has taught me that divorce is a very nasty thing on all levels: physically, mentally and spiritually and should never occur unless there’s abuse or infidelity. There’s no way around it and anyone who says they’re better off is usually fooling themselves.

  18. Eric says:

    Dalrock;
    The question of conscious intention is admittedly not clear. Feminist ideology has so permeated the minds of most women that they often act and think on its premises without realizing it.

    On the divorce question, though: another survey you’ve quoted indicates that American women are marrying at later and later ages; also a UNESCO report issued last month stated that US have the highest number of single mothers in the civilized world. Combined with the fact that women overwhelmingly cause US divorces; it seems that the logical inference would be that they see marriage as a burden and obligation that they postpone as long as possible; then bail out as soon as possible and collect an entitlement (alimony).

    If the survey’s results about depression and unhappiness are accurate; it could also be a deeper psychological variant of what Paige mentioned. Depression is almost caused by a problem that seems insoluable; and when women live their lives under a false philosophies like feminism, their education comes into conflict with the realities of their natural feminine instincts. This psychological situation is fertile ground for depression, and it’s hardly surprising that American women are the world’s largest consumers of prescription psychiatric medications.

  19. Eric says:

    Aspringlady:
    That period was also the time of the first bank collapse/bailout, a major recession, and the First Gulf War. It was also the beginning of a cultural phenomenon—that’s never subsided—of a majority of Americans’ opinion that the country is on the verge of imminent collapse or that end times are near, &c. These feelings of impending doom often turn families closer together.

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  21. dragnet says:

    “I think the problem is more insidious in that women are following the incentives at each step of the way, ignoring both their own solemn promises and the wellbeing of their spouse and their children. All the while their hamster is spinning a plausible enough reason for why they just happen to be defrauding the man.”

    The bolded portion here is key. The issue really is that the incentives for women are profoundly different at each stage of their relationship with their spouse. This is one reason why I think manosphere invective against no-fault divorce is off-base. It’s the child custody & monetary incentives that need to go.

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  24. jeanne says:

    YOU BETTER BE HAPPY OR YOU ARE A LOSER!

    Haha, you got it. Also it is imperative that each woman have A FABULOUS AND FULFILLING LIFE, and report each new triumph on Facebook.

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  26. Matt says:

    When you know that your spouse isn’t considering divorce as an option, you can go into the myriad of other struggles in your life with the sure and certain knowledge that at least _one_ of the major disasters you fear is implausible…there’s at least one human being on the planet who has your back. With your marriage secure, you can focus your attention on fixing what’s wrong with your life, that’s making you and your spouse unhappy.

    On the other hand, when you know that lurking behind every setback in your existence is a crowd of divorce advocates that your spouse is inclined to actually _listen_ to, assuring her that she deserves way better than _you_…well, it’d be pretty hard to have a happy marriage. Indeed, it’d be downright foolhardy. The moment she’s pushed over the line, the complete collapse of your entire life begins, so there’s no such thing as too prepared. You’d better squirrel some money away in secret. Making some new friends (ones she doesn’t know and thus can’t poison against you) would be smart. And make sure the kids don’t listen to her uncritically either. In fact, you probably should think really seriously about getting a lawyer right now. Can’t be too careful.

    Note that I don’t mention _any_ of the specifics of the various problems in either of those two marriages. But which one do you think is likely to be happier?

    Divorce culture undermines trust. Trust is essential for happiness in any relationship.

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  31. Disgruntled Man says:

    Divorce Sucks… I love my wife and child, yet my wife is unhappy with her choice in person to marry( Not Rich). She said she gave up on trying to change me and then gave up on accepting me for who I am. She is choosing to leave the marriage yet I have to pay her for leaving Not including child support. So I kinda aggree My wife heard about a woman who divorced a weatlhy guy and got a house and a ton of cash and has mentioned several times ever since. as measureing stick for what she blevie she should get. Yet She was sadly disappoint when I informed her we owed more on housetha what it was worth. She also could not believe I didn’t have a big lump of money saved to offer her in the divorce as well as pay off her personal loans from when she borrowed money from family to leave earlier( Practice run) for plane tickets. I try not to be angry but I firmly believe she was thinking about the divorce before the marriage or at least long before the papres filed tow weeks ago. I am bit happier I will soon be on my own. but I am saddened by the loss of contact with daughter and the realationship we used to have. Some people fake orgasms, some fake everything else….. Disgrunted, divorcing man who has to pay for a divorce he didin’t initally want want but has to do the right thing :-(

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  38. exceptions says:

    There are exceptions to these studies. Not everyone fits into these studies methodology, therefore it is dangerous and damaging to assume everyone does. I myself have done a lot of damage to myself for staying in a marriage that has been unhappy for both of us, more for me than my partner. What about couples or individual partners who have done all they could for each other yet are still unhappy after, say, 15 YEARS? Multiple counseling sessions. Anti-depressant meds. Begging and pleading to please please please honor commitments. Nada. Zilch. Nothing. UNTIL the spector of Divorce is raised. Then all of a sudden there is action and movement towards honoring commitments.

  39. exceptions part two says:

    It has all left me wondering if this marriage, for which we both work for ONLY when divorce is mentioned, really is a marriage. I feel I shouldn’t have to threaten to leave just to get my partner to honor commitments, commitments made since BEFORE we were married. WTF? Where is the mutual love, care, and respect? I feel this situation has become abusive, and that no one need remain in an abusive relationship.

  40. bskillet81 says:

    I myself have done a lot of damage to myself for staying in a marriage that has been unhappy for both of us, more for me than my partner.

    Or maybe, the damage was not caused by you staying in the marriage, but by your own lack of contentment and your unrealistic expectations.

    Have you tried, you know, choosing to be happy? Have you engaged the possibility that maybe, just maybe, it isn’t your spouse’s job to make you happy?

    I feel I shouldn’t have to threaten to leave just to get my partner to honor commitments, commitments made since BEFORE we were married. WTF? Where is the mutual love, care, and respect?

    So you threaten divorce–for what you don’t say–and then you complain about mutual love, care, and (especially) respect? Do you not see a problem with this? Threaten a man continually, and eventually he’ll just shut down emotionally. He’ll go through behaviors that will get you off his case, but forget about mutual love, car, and respect if you’re not willing to show it yourself.

    I feel this situation has become abusive, and that no one need remain in an abusive relationship.

    You feel? Has it become abusive? Is he hitting you? If not, it hasn’t become abusive, and you’re just rationalizing.

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  42. Malia says:

    I feel let extremely let down and heartbroken by my exhusband who choose to leave our 20 year marriage with feeling that he just wasnt happy with me. I couldnt get answer from him why he felt that way ,i begged him on my knees to let us please work out what he felt didnt make him unhappy but he refused and convinced our adopted daughter that I never loved her when he went to buying and allowing her to get her way. He says hes happier. My son whos 22 has choosen to stay wiyh me in the apartment I live in while he has the house that is his parents its has left me devestated with all the years together as a family now broken apart. I could not see happiness in divorce without serious reSon. Divorce is horrible and
    sad.

  43. BrokenSoul says:

    Eric – “Women lose nothing by divorce.”

    I lost everything- my life, future dreams, home, self-worth and most unfortunate, my husband/my best friend. My husband initiated and I begged him to stay. Yes, we definitely had our share of problems, but I would have done anything for him. Nothing is fixed over night and many of the problems had started to dissipate (sex, finances). I believed in “for better or for worse.” He was in Korea and I stateside, I realized 3 days after he told me he was going to file, he had clearly made up his mind. To save myself, I load up the car with my clothes, a few books and two dogs and drove to my parents. We went uncontested (no lawyers) and I folded on his requests quickly (no alimony, lump sum). To ease the grief, I just wanted to walk away as quickly and quietly as possible. At 33, after 6 years of marriage and divorce, all I had to my name was two dogs, a car, some clothes and a broken soul.

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