On Psychology

Jewish World Review Feb. 18, 1999 /2 Adar, 5759


Dr. Wade Horn

Divorcing with a 'tude

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

ABOUT ONE HALF OF ALL MARRIAGES in the United States are expected to end in divorce. In fact, the U.S. has become the world's leader when it comes to divorce. The question that naturally springs to mind is: why?

Lots of reasons have been offered to explain why the divorce rate has increased so dramatically over the past thirty years. Some argue that as increasing numbers of women have entered the paid labor force, it has become more economically feasible for them to divorce their husbands. Others lay the blame on the introduction of no-fault divorce laws for having lowered the legal bar to divorce. Still others suggest that because people are living longer, there is simply a longer time-frame for marital unhappiness to emerge and hence for divorce to happen.

But each of these notions is not really sufficient for explaining why divorce rates have tripled since the early 1960s. For example, it does not necessarily follow that just because a woman enters the paid labor force, she will begin to entertain notions of dumping her hubby. I'm quite confident that there are millions of happily married women who work outside the home.

Similarly, although no-fault divorce laws certainly make divorce easier, no fault divorce laws do not, in and of themselves, cause marriages to become unhappy. It only lowers the legal bar to divorce for couples who are already unhappy. And living longer could mean more years of marital bliss, not more opportunity for marital distress.

To more adequately understand why couples are divorcing more frequently today than three decades ago, I believe you have to examine changes in our attitudes about divorce. In fact, research shows that couples with more favorable attitudes toward divorce are more likely to dissolve their marriages than those who hold less favorable attitudes.

But just because there is an association between attitudes toward divorce and marital breakup, does not necessarily mean that the increase in permissive attitudes toward divorce has caused the increase in divorces. Correlation, as any graduate student knows, does not prove causation. In fact, it is possible that, rather than permissive attitudes about divorce causing more marital breakup, more permissive attitudes about divorce are the result of problems emerging in the marriage. That is, as problems begin to arise, couples may adopt more permissive attitudes toward divorce as a means of justifying their desire to end the marriage.

So which comes first? Marital conflict or permissive attitudes toward divorce? It's a chicken and egg thing.

A recently published study in the Journal of Family Issues by noted social scientists Paul Amato and Stacy Rogers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln sheds some important light on this subject. Using a national sample of 2,033 married persons who participated in telephone interviews in 1980, 1983, and 1988, these researchers used sophisticated statistical analyses to estimate whether changes in attitudes toward divorce proceed or are a consequence of marital problems. Because the couples in this sample were interviewed several times over a number of years, the researchers could better tease out the chicken from the egg.

What they found was this: Couples who have more favorable attitudes toward divorce tended over time to experience declines in marital quality, whereas those who have less favorable attitudes toward divorce tended over time to experience improvements in marital quality. This pattern held for women as well as men, and for those in longer marriages as well as those in shorter marriages. In other words, holding permissive attitudes toward divorce can be dangerous to your marital health.

Unlike a lot of social research, this study actually has important implications, both for society at large and for individual couples.

What this study suggests is that when we adopt the belief that an unrewarding marriage should be jettisoned, we are simultaneously lessening our commitment to the idea of marital permanence. And when we lessen our commitment to the idea of marital permanence, we become less likely to invest the time and energy necessary to make our marriages "work," especially during the difficult times (and what marriage hasn't had a few of those?) As Amato and Rogers conclude, "Ironically, by adopting attitudes that provide greater freedom to leave unsatisfying marriages, people may be increasing the likelihood that their marriages will become unsatisfying in the long run." Ironic and tragic.

This does not mean, of course, that some marriages ought not to end in divorce. There are certainly some circumstances under which divorce is not only inevitable, but preferable. But at the same time, we need to be clear that such cases are a small fraction of those couples that currently divorce -- and that even very troubled marriages can be saved.

None of this would matter, of course, if marriage didn't matter. But it does. And it matters not just a little, but a lot. On almost every measure of child well-being imaginable, children do best, on average, when they grow up within the context of an intact, two-parent household. And it's not just children that benefit from marriage. Married adult men and women are happier, healthier, and wealthier than their unmarried counterparts. And the more married households there are in a community, the less violence and crime that community experiences.

The bottom line is this: If you want your marriage to be happy and healthy, hold firm to the idea that marriage is a forever thing. In doing so, the marriage you save could very well be your own.


JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR

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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn