Can marriage make you happy? Or, if you are unhappily married, will divorce make you feel better? Probably it will not. I’ve been working with couples long enough now to see patterns, tendencies, and trends in marriage and divorce. One tendency I want to highlight here is the human tendency to pursue happiness in all the wrong places and then get upset when those places in our lives don’t produce happiness. “The pursuit of happiness” was written into the U.S. Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson as a right of all the people, and so we Americans expect happiness to come to us. Remember though, the right is not to have happiness, but to pursue it. Rather than pursue, I think many of us have a tendency to postpone happiness. We say to ourselves; “When (fill in the blank) happens, then I’ll be happy” or “If I get that thing, that promotion, that degree, that person, then I’ll be happy.”
What I have seen, regarding the pursuit of happiness, is that many people expect happiness to come from getting married. They expect happiness to burst forth effortlessly and eternally after they say “I do.” Joshua Lievman is quoted to say “‘And they lived happily ever after’ is one of the most tragic sentences in literature. It’s tragic because it’s a falsehood. It is a myth that has led generations to expect something from marriage that is not possible.” That makes sense. Logically, we can all agree that it’s silly to expect happiness 24/7 in our lives. Yet, the irrational part of us says that our spouse should always make us happy. Dr. Frank Pittman, a respected marriage expert and author, says “marriage isn’t supposed to make you happy, it’s supposed to make you married.” So maybe it’s closer to the truth to expect that happy people will be happy in their marriage, and that marriage won’t magically make unhappy folks into happy folks.
What about divorce? If someone who is unhappily married gets divorced will he or she be happier after divorcing? Research has pursued this question and findings indicate the answer is NO. In 2002, a team of researchers from the University of Chicago tested what is known as “The Divorce Assumption.” This is the assumption that an unhappily married person will become happier if they get a divorce. The research team studied over 5,000 people who were interviewed about their marriages first in the late eighties and then again five years later. Some of the people interviewed the first time described themselves as unhappily married. Five years later, those unhappily married people who had divorced since they were first interviewed reported the same level of unhappiness in their life five years later. Moreover, the unhappily married people who didn’t divorce by the time they were interviewed again reported improved happiness in their life and in their marriage!
The bottom line of all this research is that divorce did not alleviate symptoms of depression, or raise self-esteem. Linda J. Waite, one of the researchers on the team, states “Staying married is not just for the children’s sake. Some divorce is necessary, but results like these suggest the benefits of divorce have been oversold.” Indeed, research is showing that divorce may actually create more stress for the divorcing spouse than it alleviates, especially when children are involved. Ron Deal, a marriage therapist specializing in blended families, is quoted to say “Divorce doesn’t end a family, it reorganizes it. Or, should I say it complicates it?”
Recently Denise Jackson, the wife of country-music star Alan Jackson, was interviewed on The Today Show about her book on her marriage with Alan. High school sweethearts, Denise married Alan right out of high school in 1979. She stayed with him through his rise from mail-room clerk in Nashville to world-renown country singer. Ten years ago, in the midst of a fairy-tale “happily ever after” kind of life, their marriage was almost destroyed by Alan’s decision to have an affair.
Denise explained on the Today Show that forgiveness “was the real key to freedom in my life” following Alan’s affair. She attributes her ability to forgive, and the rebuilding of her marriage, to God’s help. Denise stated; “Life is not a fairy tale, and even the most perfect spouse can not be your all-in-all. We all have our faults, and every adult alive has regrets.” The main thing Denise says she learned is that while her marriage was very important to her, it really isn’t the place to find meaning and happiness in life. Instead, Denise says “I drew my strength from God.”
If you are unhappy in your marriage, think hard before giving in to “The Divorce Assumption.” The chances are divorce will not help but only complicate things (except in chronic cases of abuse, adultery, or addiction). Staying married won’t really make you happy either, because you can’t find happiness by just staying married. To succeed in marriage, you must be willing to fully commit. Secondly, you must work on making your marriage better. And thirdly, you must be able to experience happiness independent of your marital status or the quality of your marriage. Take the example of Denise Jackson, or take the advice of Albert Einstein, who said “If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.”