Should Couples In Unhappy Marriages Stick It Out?

In the Meaning of Marriage (one of the very few marriage books that I enjoyed and recommend) Tim Keller says that most unhappy marriages will improve over time if the couple is willing to stay together. Now that might sound like the kind of advice you expect from a pastor who believes that in many cases couples are too quick to hit the “eject button” and divorce without putting forth the necessary effort in their own relationship.

But what if there were empirical studies that backed up that claim? Would that make a difference to you?

A recently released UK study by the Marriage Foundation finds that there is data to back up the claim that many (if not most) unhappy marriages turn around within 5 years. The study tracked couples with newborns over a 10 year time frame.

“We found that some 5 percent were unhappy in their relationship soon after the baby was born. Just under a third of these then split up. Of the majority who stayed together, only 7 percent (of the 5 percent, so that’s 0.3 percent of the total sample) were still unhappy by the time their child was aged 11, whereas 68 percent said they were now happy.”

A 2002 study of American couples found that 66% of unhappy couples that stayed together reported much higher levels of happiness just 5 years later. The same study concluded that the people who opted to get divorced weren’t any happier than those who stayed together. So if you stick it out most couples find a way to make things work. And on average divorce doesn’t lead to more happiness.

One more interesting finding…

Because this study focused on parents of newborns and then followed them for 10 years, there was an interesting finding regarding how parents interact with each other when they have young children. Having carried a baby for 40 weeks, moms has a special attachment to the child and often makes the child’s well being her primary focus. That’s both understandable and good.

But dad tends to back off, let mom do the work, feels sorry for himself, and finds other places to invest his time and energy. Bad move. With mom preoccupied with the child, dad needs to focus his attention on mom. Mom is making sure that the parent-child relationship is strong and so dad needs to make sure that the husband-wife relationship is strong.

Happy wife, happy life. Believe it or not, there’s research to support this. It’s much less true the other way around. For example, in one study of 722 older husbands and wives, husbands reported that they were happier with both marriage and life when their wives were also happy with their marriage. Happy husbands didn’t seem to have the same effect on their wives.

If you’re in an unhappy marriage, don’t give up. There’s hope. Not only do the Bible and pastors tell you that but so does research.

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