Pastors, Christian marriage authors, and Christian radio programs like to quote the study by Dr. Linda Waite, who found, "Two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce or separation ended up happily married five years later."

When this study came out in 2002, pastors and Christian radio programs went wild, trumpeting this from the pulpit and airwaves. They often proposed that an unhappy couple merely had to stay together a few more years and their marriage would become happy. They also suggested that those who didn't take their advice, and chose to divorce, were quitters who wanted the easy way out.

Pastors and Focus on the Family suggested:

  • Your unhappy marriage will become happy if you stay 5 years
  • Divorce will make you unhappy.
  • Divorcees are selfish people who give up too early and take the easy way out

But people who claimed this did not read the Waite report. (Or if they did, they ignored her real conclusions.) More than seven times, Waite says the opposite, often showing that destructive marriages aren't likely to become happy, and that divorce in those cases often results in increased happiness.

Staying 5 years is unlikely to help where there is serious marriage-endangering sin, such as a pattern of sexual immorality, physical abuse, emotional abuse, life-altering addictions, abandonment or neglect.

 

Seven quotes from Dr. Waite:  (Emphasis mine.)

Marriage-at-any-cost organizations, such as Focus on the Family, love to quote the Waite 2002 study and her 2003 book. Their articles suggest that marriages will universally improve over time, and that those who divorce are always unhappy.

But that's wrong!
The Waite study actually found something quite different: That people in destructive marriages are better off by divorcing, and that 81% of those individuals who remarried were happier in the next marriage! The main quote you'll hear from Dr. Linda Waite's study is this: "Almost two-thirds of unhappy spouses who stuck with the marriage forged happy marriages down the road" (emphasis mine). And this quote: "Two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce or separation ended up happily married five years later." 
But that means that one-in-three did not ever become happy.  Here is in the last sentence of the Waite Study:

Quote 1:

"Both people and marriages are likely 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 — a key relation in whose success family, friends, faith communities, counselors, family-law attorneys, and the wider society have an important stake."  — Linda J. Waite, Don Browning, William J. Doherty, Maggie Gallagher, Ye Luo, and Scott M. Stanley, Does Divorce Make People Happy, Institute for Family Values, 2002, p. 33.

Stating the obvious! 

So why put that admission in that last sentence of the study? And why phrase it this way? Perhaps it was because she's an honest researcher but the study was privately funded by a small anti-divorce organization, and she had to hide it away at the bottom of page 33.

 

Quote 2: Waite   

 

"Among those unhappily married spouses who stayed married, what factors predicted happier marriages down the road? Marriages with high conflict and domestic violence were less likely to become happy five years later." p. 11-12

She's saying that you can tell in advance which marriages are likely to become happy, and it's not the destructive ones.

 

Quote 3: Waite

"If the problem is marital violence, divorce appears to offer significant relief."  p. 12

So, we can say people who escaped unhappy marriages are often happier or at least greatly relieved to get to safety.

 

Quote 4: Waite

"When an unhappily married adult experiences violence, divorce and remarriage significantly reduce the likelihood he or she will experience domestic violence (at least from spouses)." p. 12

 

Quote 5: Waite

"...24 percent of those unhappy spouses who divorced or separated ended up in a second marriage within five years. Eighty-one percent of those second marriages were happy." p. 12

She's saying the vast majority of unhappily married spouses who divorced and remarried found better partners the second time: 81%!

 

Quote 6: Waite

"Does divorce make unhappily married people happy? The answer, surprisingly, in this research, seems to be no....With the important exception of reducing the incidence of marital violence for unhappy spouses (in violent marriages), divorce failed, on average, to result in improvements in psychological well-being for unhappy spouses." p. 13-14

She's saying, in general divorce does not make people happy. But if you're in a destructive home, it likely will.

 

Quote 7: Waite   What kinds of marriages improved? The marriages that improved were those with "outside stressors," not bad behavior by one spouse.

"Many spouses we interviewed who survived marital unhappiness did not see problems within the relationship as the cause. Instead they blamed outside forces for causing both unhappiness and relationship stress: Spouses became ill, lost jobs, got depressed, children got into trouble or created marital stresses by their financial and emotional demands." p. 15

 

Waite lists one story of a serious relationship problem that improved: a husband who stopped drinking after two years. (Two years? All wives of drug and alcohol addicts wish they could be so fortunate!)

 

Quote 8: Hawkins and Booth   So why am I not a fan of Waite's study? In part because of the way it's worded. But also because another study was done three years later by another team of researchers using the same data. They didn't just look at five years, they looked at twelve years. They used the same national survey Waite did, but they did a more thorough job and they measured more than just "happiness," they measured three more factors, including the person's overall health.  They found that—

 

"Remaining unhappily married is associated with significantly lower levels of overall happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem and overall health along with elevated levels of psychological distress compared to remaining otherwise continuously married. There is also some evidence that staying unhappily married is more detrimental than divorcing, as people in low-quality marriages are less happy than individuals who divorce and remarry. They also have lower levels of life satisfaction, self-esteem and overall health than individuals who divorce and remain unmarried. Unhappily married people may have greater odds of improving their well-being by dissolving their low-quality unions as there is no evidence that they are better off in any aspect of overall well-being than those who divorce." —Daniel N. Hawkins and Alan Booth, Unhappily Ever after: Effects of Long-Term, Low-Quality Marriages on Well-Being, Social Forces, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Sep., 2005), pp. 451-471, from the abstract

 

Quote 9: Hetherington

Stories of improved health after a life-saving divorce are common, as leading researcher Dr. Mavis Hetherington notes:

“The one striking exception to the otherwise general rule about postdivorce decline in health were women who had been in distant or hostile marriages.” —Hetherington, Kelly, For Better or For Worse (2002), p. 59

 

The message that "all marriages will become happier if you stay" is UNSAFE for you and your children.

 

And by the way, the same people and organizations suggest that all marriage will improve with time, also tend to say that divorce is universally bad for children. But that too is inaccurate: Where there are serious problems, where the marriage is toxic, children whose parents divorce had better well being than children whose parents didn't. They found that "staying for the kids" can be bad for them. Click here for an article on kids and divorce. 


Are you going through a life-saving divorce? I’d like to invite you to my private Facebook group, "Life-Saving Divorce for Separated or Divorced Christians." Just click the link and ANSWER the 3 QUESTIONS. This is a group for women and men of faith who have walked this path, or are considering it.  Also, sign up for my email list below.


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