Three ways to handle an unhappy marriage

Post written by Dr. Corey Allan.
Originally posted Sept. 6, 2012.

Problems in marriage are inevitable. Even chronic.

And so, at times, is unhappiness.

After studying 645 couples where one spouse rated their marriage as unhappy, a research study from a team of family scholars found that 2/3s of the couples who chose to stick it out together reported a significantly happier marriage five years later.

So what makes the difference if you choose not to divorce?

The marriages that got happier fell into three broad approaches: the marital work ethic, the marital endurance ethic, and the personal happiness epic.

  1. In the marital work ethic, spouses actively work to solve problems, change behavior, or improve communication. When the problem is solved, the marriage gets happier. Strategies for improving marriages range from arranging dates or other ways to spend more time together, to enlisting the help and advice of relatives or in-laws, consulting clergy or secular counselors, or even threatening divorce and consulting divorce attorneys.
  2. In the marital endurance ethic, by contrast, spouses don’t solve problems with concerted action on the part of either spouse. Stated another way, you don’t “work” on an unhappy marriage; instead, you endure it. “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other” because with the passage of time, things get better. Job situations improve, children get older or better, or chronic ongoing problems get put into new perspective.
  3. Finally, in the personal happiness epic, marriage problems don’t seem to change that much. Instead, you find alternative ways to improve your own happiness and build a good and happy life despite a mediocre marriage. This often contains elements of both the marital work ethic and the marital endurance ethic approaches as well.

Marriage as a Shared Story

Creating a happy marriage depends on more than just your interactions with your spouse, it also depends on how you view marriage in general.

Marriage is not just the sum of the personal interactions that you find either satisfying or distressing. Marriage is a social status and a shared ideal — a story you have about your own life, your family, your spouse, and your love.

The attitudes and values that people and societies have about marriage and divorce affect how satisfying people find being married. In communities where marriage is highly valued, husbands and wives get more from marriage than they would in a community where marriage is seen as a merely private matter.

People who are deeply committed to marriage as a lifelong vow have happier marriages not only because of what they do in their relationships, but because of what they think about being married in general. Read that sentence again.

Stated another way: the happiness you get from any role in life — being a parent, holding a job, being married — depends in part on how satisfying you find the day-to-day interactions and tasks. But it also depends on whether you see the role itself as important and valuable.

In general, we have many goals for our own marriages, and those of others: We want marriage to last, we want children to enjoy living with their own two married parents, we want these marriages to be happy, and we don’t want unhappily married people trapped in miserable lives.

Over the past 40 years, these goals have seemed to be in conflict: If we discourage divorce we create lasting marriages at the high cost of individual misery — almost certainly for adults and often for the children.

Based on the findings of this study, this conventional wisdom is untrue.

Does divorce typically make unhappily married people happier than staying married? No.

Does a firm commitment to staying married, even though unhappy, typically condemn adults to lifelong misery? No.

So, is divorce always wrong and staying married always right? The answer’s not so simple.

Both divorce and marriage initiate complex chains of events whose outcomes cannot be predicted with certainty at the outset.

But know this … marriages are not happy or unhappy — spouses are.

And with the passage of time, the feelings of people about their marriages can and do change.

A bad marriage and a good marriage is not always a fixed opposite, but the same marriage at two different points in time (or in the eyes of two different spouses).

Divorce may make an unhappy spouse happier, but there is no guarantee (and much doubt) that it will.

Marriage is no panacea, but neither is divorce.

To sum all this up: People and marriages are going to be happier in communities with a strong commitment to marital permanence. While some marriages are so destructive that divorce or separation is the best outcome, marriages are more likely to be both happy and stable when marriage is highly valued.

So,

Surround yourself with other married couples who value marriage as well.

Stick it out through the tough times.

And live life together with others.

It makes the ride so much more enjoyable along the way.

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Enrollment for Blow Up My Marriage begins this week. 

*Adapted from Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings from a Study of Unhappy Marriages, by Linda J. Waite, Don Browning, William J. Doherty, Maggie Gallagher, Ye Luo, and Scott M. Stanley

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