Leaving room for divorce contributes to marital dissatisfaction?

When asked if there is a trick to staying married as long as we have (28 years as I write this), I’ve been known to reply “Don’t get divorced.” My family heritage and faith emphasize marriage as a commitment and I must admit that at times I’ve felt apologetic and counter-cultural for carrying on that stance. My younger friends are just as likely to say things like, “It’s OK. If it doesn’t work out, we can just get divorced. No biggee.” Obviously, if you know you have a choice in the matter from the start, you’ll feel less trapped and happier, right?

Wrong. According to Daniel Gilbert (Department of Psychology at Harvard University), “The psychological immune system works best when we are totally stuck, when we are trapped.”

The following TED talk is not a talk specifically about relationships, rather choices and happiness, but the implications are huge.

See if you agree with implications for marriage that I extrapolated from the video. They include:

1) Go into your marriage expecting to be stuck there forever if you want to synthesize happiness in your marriage. Being stuck is what engenders thoughts like:  “The one I got is really better than I thought! That other one I didn’t get sucks!”

As stated,  “the reversible condition” – in the context of marriage, the possibility of divorce – “is not conducive to the synthesis of happiness.”

2) “Synthetic happiness is real.” If people tell you that you are looking at your marriage through rose-coloured glasses – of being a Pollyanna – they may be right. But it generally doesn’t matter because sythetic happiness really is as valid as found, rational happiness.

The exception to this would obviously be a situation where there is abuse. In this case, it is also important to know that our happiness may indeed be overstated at our own expense.

The Adam Smith quote used is very deep and applies here. “”The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life seems to arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another … Some of these situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others, but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardor which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice, or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse for the horror of our own injustice.”

3. I will think twice before using the words “Have you considered divorce?” It follows from the research that planting the idea of divorce as a choice may actually decrease the listener’s happiness in their existing marriage.

4. The time to carefully choose a mate is before, not after, you are married. I like Dr. Gilberts comment “I mean, you go out on a date with a guy, and he picks his nose; you don’t go out on another date. You’re married to a guy and he picks his nose? Yeah, he has a heart of gold; don’t touch the fruitcake. Right? You find a way to be happy with what’s happened.”

5. It may be a corollary that at those times in our life when contemplating the possibly of choice is the highest, our satisfaction in our marriage will be the lowest. Think about some of the stereotypical times when people divorce (eg. when the kids move out, key “middle age” birthdays, or when a spouse is seriously ill). I have always thought that people consider a change of spouse because they are unsatisfied with their marriage, but maybe that is backwards! Maybe sometimes we become unsatisfied with our marriage because we are considering other alternatives. (Aside: Finding flaws in our heartmate is a common characteristic of “withdrawing” partners during marital distress.)

The video is well worth the listen whether or not you see in it what I did. I am still digesting the implications.

For more information:

The key study referenced in the video:
Decisions and revisions: The affective forecasting of changeable outcomes.
Gilbert, Daniel T.; Ebert, Jane E. J.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 82(4), Apr 2002, 503-514. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.82.4.503

Related:
The Psychological Pleasure and Pain of Choosing: When People Prefer Choosing at the Cost of Subsequent Outcome Satisfaction.
Botti, Simona; lyengar, Sheena S.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 87(3), Sep 2004, 312-326. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.87.3.312

2 thoughts on “Leaving room for divorce contributes to marital dissatisfaction?

  1. Great remarks here Greg. Additionally, when we are considering other choices the focus on finding ways to make our current marriage better or happier is diluted, if not missing altogether.

    I was working with a couple the other day, and the husband reported a family member said to him, “You’re a person who values your relationships. I think you need to behave that way. Stop staying late at work. Give your wife some additional attention. Put yourself IN your relationship. I bet you’ll be happier.”

    Sure enough, just one week later – after several days of turning off his mobile phone (where he took work calls throughout the evening at home), arriving home earlier, and exercising to de-stress before he went home he reported having a really nice time in conversation sharing with his wife and a happy, tension free weekend. He was hopeful again about making his marriage a loving and understanding relationship.

    When he decided he was IN the relationship and not considering other alternatives as a way for him to manage his own tension and need to get out of the tension his brain went to work on what else he could do to improve things. It was the beginning of a turn around.

  2. I can’t tell you the number of times during the first year of my marriage that I wanted to give up, throw the towel in, and walk away. I’ve always tended to process things by running away instead of facing the music. I’m so thankful and grateful that God protected my marriage. I never actually threatened divorce. I just wanted time away… but any time away could have potentially led to divorce. There are still days when I need my space, but I am no longer even tempted to run to the “potential divorce” excuse. I love my husband so much deeper than I did when we first married, and I’m thrilled that God gives me the grace to stay and work through our problems. It breaks my heart to think that I was ever in a place like that because my husband is truly a blessing! Now we have one of those “synthetically happy” marriages, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world!

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