Would it surprise you to learn that according to new research, men and women who harbored doubts about marrying their partners have a higher rate of divorce after four years of marriage? It sounds like one of those no-brainer discoveries. But it reminded me of what one of my graduate school professors said some decades ago, that it can be useful to “demonstrate the obvious.”
Here’s why, in this case: The research underscores how often people know an inner truth, but don’t act on it. They might hold back because of various fears, such as fear of affirming themselves. Or, from pressure to acquiesce to what their families or conventional thinking tells them their “right” decision should be.
I’ve seen several examples, such as a corporate executive I’ve been helping to better integrate his leadership role and his personal life goals. While reflecting on the latter, he said, “I remember, as I was walking down the isle – literally – to marry her, I said to myself, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m making a huge mistake.’”
Let’s look at what the new research found, and what it tells people that’s important to heed – for those at the entry point of marriage, and for those much further down that road.
Researchers at UCLA interviewed 464 couples about how they viewed the partners they were about to marry. Those who harbored doubts about marrying their spouses had a much higher divorce rate after 4 years than those who didn’t. The research, reported in the Journal of Family Psychology, found that 47% of husbands and 38% of wives said they had doubts about marrying their partners at the outset.
Subsequently, 19% of the women who had pre-wedding doubts ended up divorced four years later, compared with 8% of those who didn’t have doubt. And 14% of the husbands who reported doubts were divorced four years later, compared with 9% who reported no doubts.
Researchers took into account such factors as how satisfied the spouses were with their relationships to begin with, whether their parents were divorced, and whether the couple lived together before marriage. Couples were followed up every six months for four years, after marriage. The average age of the husbands was 27; for wives, 25.
Justin Lavner, the lead author of the study, said in a summary of the research, “People think everybody has premarital doubts and you don’t have to worry about them. We found they are common but not benign. Newlywed wives who had doubts about getting married before their wedding were two-and-a-half times more likely to divorce four years later than wives without these doubts.”
But note that even the men who had doubts were nearly twice as likely to divorce than men without doubts. Moreover, those who had doubts but were still married after four years reported less marital satisfaction than those without doubts.
What It Means
More than just a lesson to be mindful of your doubts, I think this research reflects the fact that what people want from relationships is in the midst of transformation, today – both for younger men and women at the “entry level;” and for those married for some time
The transformation is evident in: Rising cohabitation rather than marriage. Increasing acceptance of gay marriage by the general public. Diminishing social stigma about affairs. Desire for greater transparency and equality in relationships as well as throughout society. These realities push up against old conventions, norms and traditional definitions of partnerships. That generates personal and social upheaval.
Now there’s even a growing movement to decriminalize polygamy. John Witte Jr., scholar of religion and law at Emory University in Atlanta, believes that polygamy is the next frontier in marriage and family law. In a Washington Post article, he points out that states are able to dismantle traditional or conventional views of marriage by allowing two men or two women to wed, so why should they not go further and sanction, or at least decriminalize, marriages between one man and several women?
As far as the long-term “damage” from divorce that some claim, that doesn’t hold up with the data. One example, cited by University of Virginia marriage researcher E. Mavis Hetherington, is that 60% of divorced people eventually end up with new partners, in positive relationships.
Whatever you think about these social shifts, the fact is that many marriages become marked by low-level emotional intimacy, inequality regarding power, and an unsatisfying sexual life. That’s almost the norm. Therefore it would be wise for men and women at the “entry level” of marriage, as well as those within longer-term marriages, to engage in some fact-checking with themselves:
For Younger People…
- Tune in to what your soul tells you when you envision life with your prospective marriage partner.
- What does that reveal about what you’re really looking for; what you’re seeking?
- Do you resonate with surveys and other studies showing that younger people do want long-term, energized relationships, but perhaps a different form of partnership than now exists — that they just don’t know what it looks like, or how to build it?
- Are you open to different kinds of arrangements that might better serve a more positive, lasting relationship?
For Couples In Long-Term Marriages…
- If you’re a couple who’ve stayed together in a long-term marriage, ask yourselves, “Why?”
- Do an honest assessment of your marriage as it exists today. Review with each other how it’s evolved over time, for better or for worse. For example, perhaps the marriage you began years ago, and within which you raised children, worked for that earlier purpose but may no longer work for you today.
- Clarify whether you want to stay with each other for the rest of your life, and if so, why?
- If you want to stay together, what will it take to make it a growing, breathing entity – and not become a pool of stagnant water?
Your answers will inform you whether it’s possible to keep growing together over time. And if not, how to end it with regret, respect and mutual support for your future lives.
People fail to heed – or act upon — their inner voices about many things. Whatever your stage in life, learn the importance of pursuing self-awareness and heeding whatever it tells you along the way.