Is an Unhappy Marriage Better than Divorce?

By Marilyn Gardner, staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, October 4, 2000

Thirty years after the divorce revolution first offered the promise of "freedom" to unhappy couples, assuring them that children are resilient and will quickly adjust, a quiet reappraisal is taking place. Several researchers now find that what might be liberating for adults can sometimes have unsettling long-term effects on children.

The best-known proponent of this viewpoint is Judith Wallerstein, whose new book, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce," is sparking controversy from newsmagazine covers to talk shows and columns. She was a featured speaker at a seminar at the nonpartisan Institute for American Values in New York, sharing the spotlight with Linda Waite, author of another new book, "The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially."

Both authors hope their findings, and those of other researchers, will promote a shift in public attitudes, encouraging marriage and discouraging divorce.

"We've been wrong in thinking the main impact of divorce occurs at the breakup," says Ms. Wallerstein, who has followed the children of divorced families for 25 years. Noting that the major impact on children takes place when they reach their 20s, she adds, "That's when the ghosts rise from the basement."

One quarter of Americans between the pages of 18 and 44 have divorced parents. At least a million children a year since 1971 have come out of divorced families. Some of these young people feel unprepared for marriage, Wallerstein says in an interview, because they lack "internal images of a relationship as it moves through the years."

She emphasizes that people in unhappy marriages can have happy children. She adds, "A lot of people who divorce know what they're getting away from. But they have a very hazy notion of what they're getting into."

Professor Waite, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, also challenges the widely held belief that divorce is usually the best answer for children when a marriage becomes troubled.

"Culturally, Americans think it's morally wrong to stay together if you're unhappy," Waite says. "Every marriage has bad patches. When people stay with the marriage, very often it gets better – maybe a lot better." Among couples who stick it out, she finds, permanent marital unhappiness is surprisingly rare.

Not all unhappy couples should stay together, of course. In cases of abusive relationships and long-term unhappiness, Waite observes that from the standpoint of physical and emotional health, couples are better off single.

Her large-scale study shows that simply viewing marriage as important for children ignores its wide-ranging benefits for adults. Married couples enjoy better health, make more money, and often live longer than their single counterparts.

Critics complain that Wallerstein's sample – 131 children from upscale Marin County, Calif. – is too small and too localized to be statistically representative. They point out that many children of divorce form strong marriages and lead happy lives.

A study by Stephanie Staal confirms some of Wallerstein's findings. Ms. Staal's parents divorced when she was 13. Now in her late 20s, she interviewed 120 children of divorce, ranging from their 20s to early 40s, for "The Love They Lost: Living With the Legacy of Our Parents' Divorce."

Although Staal says she "definitely agreed" with a lot of Wallerstein's findings, people she interviewed were "not quite so bleak." Many had overcome a fear of commitment and were in stable relationships. Their parents' divorce had made them "more dedicated to their relationships, more focused on communicating and overcoming problems."

Almost all of Staal's interviewees accepted the fact of divorce. The vast majority said it would have been worse if their parents had stayed together. Her own parents tried for a year to maintain the marriage. "It was horrible. I was a wreck, just living in that kind of household, where there was so much tension." Even so, she finds the divorce "still upsetting."

Like any life experience, Staal continues, individual responses to divorce can be very fluid. "People may have felt one way as teens, another way in their 20s, and another way in their 30s."

She believes one reason divorce circles back as a big issue for those in their 20s is because their parents remained silent. Many of those she interviewed had never talked about the divorce, either within their families or with friends. Staal urges parents to sit down with children and rationally discuss the divorce. "For a lot of people, it was a shock," she says. "They were never given any kind of explanation or forewarning. It was just a very emotional explosion that ended with one parent leaving. When you're a kid, that's just too much to handle."

Waite and Wallerstein both underscore the need for a national conversation about marriage. Politicians, Waite observes, talk about family values, but not about marriage. She wants altar-shy couples to understand the benefits of marrying rather than cohabiting.

"We have to say, even if it risks offending people, that marriage is different and better, pretty much across the board, for men, women, children, societies, communities," Waite says. "All this namby-pamby focus on relationships, intimate partners, and you and your 'significant other' is giving people the message that they're all the same. Empirically they're not. The long-run commitment, the public nature, the supported, enforceable nature is one of the big things that allows marriage to do what it does."