Why does a high divorce rate continue to plague the American marriage despite the big-ticket advice-and-therapy industry and years of handwringing? And how can couples keep their vows on track?
By Bettijane Levine 02/01/2011
There’s good news and bad news on the marital mayhem front. On the upside, Americans’ belief in true love seems to reign unabated. Most of us continue to seek more perfect unions, marriages that endure ’til death do us part. On the downside, we continue to be disillusioned about all of the above. We watch as friends, parents, politicians, celebrities of all stripes repeatedly take holy vows and then break them, sometimes in merciless ways. (Think John and Elizabeth Edwards, or Sandra Bullock and Jesse James.) We all know that divorce wreaks all kinds of financial and emotional havoc, but we continue to make the mistakes that cause it. Why? Do we choose the wrong partners, for the wrong reasons? As our life spans grow longer, has the concept of lasting love become obsolete? Are today’s spouses really as interchangeable as the apps on our iPads?
Social scientists are toiling to come up with answers, their research publicized for readers apparently ravenous for such news. A recent story on “the ‘Me’ Marriage” in The New York Times stayed on the paper’s most-emailed list for one full week, until the Arizona shootings knocked it off. The story, based on psychologists’ new findings, explained that the longest-lasting marriages may be those in which each partner finds self-expansion and a more interesting life because of the spousal relationship.
Other recent research classified love into four different types, and suggests that only one kind — romantic love — will lead to an enduring and fulfilling marriage. Okay, but how does one know if one’s love is “romantic,” rather than the other three less desirable types, all of which offer the same euphoric high in the early stages? Even the international online dating service eHarmony, founded right here in Pasadena in 2000, is seeking more definitive data on how to build a marriage that won’t end in divorce. The firm’s senior research director, Dr. Gian Gonzaga, has embarked on a longitudinal marriage study touted as one of the largest and most comprehensive ever conducted.
To help Arroyo Monthly readers get a handle on all this Cupid-caused chaos, Bettijane Levine spoke with marriage expert
Dr. Benjamin Karney, professor of social psychology at UCLA and adjunct behavioral scientist at the Rand Corporation.
Arroyo: Is the divorce rate higher now, or does it just seem that way from the glut of gossip about divorce in the media and on the Internet?
Dr. Karney: Of all people getting married now, it is estimated that a little less than half of those marriages are likely to end in divorce — a little less than 50 percent. That’s actually an underestimate, because about 10 percent of marriages end in permanent separation without getting divorced. So if you add the two together, a little over 50 percent of all first marriages are estimated to end, either in divorce or permanent separation.
A: Has that percentage gotten better or worse?
K: The divorce rate has remained fairly stable in recent years. We expect it to rise when the current financial crisis is over. Couples under financial stress have difficulty resolving problems and managing negative emotions. Traditionally, in any economic crisis, there is an increase in the divorce rate when the crisis is over. Some suggest that’s because there are couples suffering who can’t afford to get a divorce right now but who might divorce when their own financial situation recovers. It’s kind of ironic that the first thing you see when the economy rebounds is marriages ending. You’d expect the opposite, that the divorce rate would go down when economic pressure is relieved.
A: Yes, but if the marriage was good before the economy tanked, and a couple’s money problems are finally over, can’t they recapture the rapture? Can’t they get back to where they were before the financial crisis?
K: The damage that partners do to each other in intimate relationships is not easily healed. So no, it isn’t easy to recapture what they once had.
A: Can couples therapy be helpful?
K: Research on the effectiveness of marital therapy indicates that about 50 percent of couples who go to therapy for marital distress experience some improvement. But even for those couples, improvements are often small, and once they leave therapy the improvements tend to fade. As I said before, relationships once distressed are very difficult to heal. The better investment is not to try and fix distressed relationships, but to try and prevent them.
A: How is it possible to prevent torn relationships? What are people doing wrong, that they end up in divorce?
K: Part of the problem is that people just don’t want to avoid divorce. They want a good relationship. They believe they deserve one. That’s why divorce is common. A lot of relationships start out good. People who divorce will tell you it stopped being good. It changed. We have to understand that good relationships can go bad. That’s scary to acknowledge, but it’s true.
A: Why do they change?
K: We have to answer by acknowledging a few things: Even when couples are at their most in love, most enamored of each other and of their relationship, it doesn’t mean that they love everything about that other person or that relationship. Even newlyweds who say ‘I love him (or her) completely’ will acknowledge that there are certain things about the partner they don’t like. At the beginning of a relationship, we focus on what we like. Those things are what’s important. Things we don’t like are unimportant.
But the things we don’t like don’t disappear. If we’re lucky, they remain unimportant, they don’t change a lot and they are things we can continue to ignore. But for some spouses, the parts of the relationship they are unhappy with become things they actually have to deal with. Or the things they’re unhappy with start to get worse. So, for example, if we love each other but we don’t communicate all that well, don’t solve problems all that well, it’s no big deal if we don’t have lots we disagree about. But if there’s something we do disagree about and it’s an issue we have to resolve, then the fact that we don’t resolve problems well becomes a big issue.
A: How can we predict, from the start, if bad changes in a marriage will occur?
K: Newlyweds are all really, really happy. Some resolve problems well, some don’t. One question we must ask is which couple doesn’t resolve problems well? What matters a lot in the ability to solve problems is the history of each partner. People whose parents divorced, on average, communicate less effectively in their own marriages and have higher divorce rates themselves. And it’s no mystery why: If your parents got divorced, you may have no model to follow from when you were a child. That makes it difficult to avoid divorce.
A: What are some other factors involved?
K: Some couples have more to deal with — chronic illness, big financial problems, jobs that are very stressful, that require long or odd hours or that take one partner away from home a lot. Some couples have easier lives than others. The more demands on a couple, the more their ability to resolve problems together is really going to matter. If we have to deal with serious problems, our communication ability will become a big issue.
A: Back to your comment about our parents’ marital success (or lack thereof), are you saying that that’s an accurate predictor of our own?
K: I’m saying we have to assess three big things when we wonder why some marriages are more successful than others: First, what are the two people like, what are their personalities, their histories? Second, how well does the couple communicate with each other? And third, a really big question, is what does this couple have to deal with in life? Is their path easy or hard? That’s partly a matter of luck.
A: Yes, but some couples seem to have ease of communication as well as relatively easy lives. Or at least that’s how their situations appear from the outside looking in. Someone like John Edwards or Jesse James, who so publicly humiliated his wife, Sandra Bullock. There are dozens of confounding examples, of both genders, from sports and movie stars to media moguls and corporate tycoons. What’s up with those types of people?
K: The predictors of being satisfied in a marriage are not the same as those for being dependent on it. So I can be very satisfied with my relationship, but if I have a lot of access to other partners, I am not dependent on it. I can easily seek another satisfying relationship. And if I’m one of those stars or tycoons, I know I’m likely to find another one. On the other hand, I might be in a terrible relationship, but if I have no other options, then I’m dependent on that relationship. Wealthy celebrities have easy access to other partners. If Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie don’t work out, they don’t think they’ll be alone. They’re probably pretty sure they’ll find someone else.
A: This is all pretty depressing. Whatever happened to the notion of commitment, of making a marriage work because you took sacred vows, or because you have children who deserve an intact home? Or simply because you still feel love? Is it even realistic to believe that marriage can last for the long haul?
K: Of course. It is clearly realistic. Millions of marriages last. You just have to decide if it’s realistic for you. Everybody who goes into marriage wants it to last and to work. On that level, everybody is committed, at least at the start. But there’s the kind of commitment that says, when things start to go wrong, I’m going to do what it takes to make this marriage work. That intention does seem to be associated with more successful relationships. Some have it because they care about the institution of marriage. Others have it because they care about the person who is their partner.
A: Where does love enter into all this?
K: People fall in love all the time. It’s fairly easy to do. But lasting love is hard, and it comes from a lot of things going right. You have to assess those three big things I mentioned above. You have to have two partners who are both capable of sustaining intimacy, two people who are capable of interacting together effectively. You need life circumstances that support the relationship. All of that has to be right. And all of it changes over time. In love, you need to be lucky.