In 2012 more than 33.000 people divorced in the Netherlands. And if the current rate of divorces and marriages stays the same, 37% of marriages will end in a divorce (Centraal Bureau Statistiek, 2012). In the United States, the statistics are no different: 32% of couples will be divorced within 10 years of marriage. After twenty years, half of the couples are not together anymore, though this includes marriage disruption caused by death (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010). These high rates raise important questions: does ‘happily ever after’ still exist? And if not, does that matter?
The answer to the first question can be answered by the given divorce rates: for a rising amount of people, there’s no happily ever after. While marriage used to be ‘till death do us part’ (whether that was happy or not), nowadays one third of marriages end in divorce. Indeed, divorce is and has been on the rise since the seventies. Hackstaff (1993) talks about a ‘divorce culture’, with companies and services set up only for couples that are divorcing. One quick search on Google gives an action plan for divorcing and websites named “separating is something you do together”, where you can make an appointment for personal advice. But despite the fact that divorce is a relatively normal thing a lot of couples remain married. So what happens to them? Are they living their ‘happily ever afters’? Are they the hand-holding old people, married for over 30 years? Are they the elderly that we secretly wish to become, over eighty years old and still head over heels in love with each other?
Well, some people are, of course, happily married and will be happily married till death. They get the ‘happily ever after’ that they planned on when they got married. Another part, and its unsure how large that part is, stays in a stable, but unhappy relationship. We all know such a couple; not a day goes by without a huge fight, but they are still together anyway. Why? There are numerous reasons: children, social contact, not wanting to be single, hoping things will get better and thinking that there are no other options (Heaton & Albrecht, 1991). People usually stay together in an unhappy relationship if the perceived costs of divorce or separation outweigh the perceived benefits of it.
These costs of divorce bring us to the next question: what exactly are the costs? Are they high? Is the lack of ‘happily ever after’ something to be extremely concerned about? Well, yes it kind of is something to be worried about. Research shows that people that have gone through a divorce are less satisfied, less happy and have more psychological distress. For example: depression is three times more common among women after a divorce than among women who are happily married, and nine times more common among men after a divorce. Research suggests that these high rates come from stress that accompanies the divorce. There is also another interesting finding: depression during a relationship may cause divorce, which in turn makes the depression rates after divorce higher, not because people get depressed after the divorce, but because they already were before. Outcomes seem better for the partner who initiated the divorce. Duration of the divorce process seems to have no impact on depression rates (Wade & Pevalin, 2004; Symoens, Bastaits, Mortelmans & Bracke, 2013). Divorce, seems to be the conclusion of most research, is pretty bad for your mental health.
But when parents are going through a divorce, usually the main concern is not directly their mental states. The first question people often ask is: “What about the children?” A good question, so yes, what about them? Divorce is often seen as something that is temporarily bad for children. Once the hard parts are over, and everybody is settled again in their new lives, these bad effects on children are said to go away. Research shows quite the contrary. In a study that lasted over 25 years, Wallerstein, Lewis & Packer Rosenthal (2013) showed that during and after a divorce, for several reasons like the reduced mental health mention earlier, mothers are less available for their children. This has multiple bad long term outcomes, like adolescent delinquency and a much longer recover time for the child-mother relationship. Another longitudinal study looked if the effects of divorce could still be seen at age thirty. That was indeed the case: at age thirty, men whose parents have gone through divorce, have significantly more negative relations, use more violence in their relationships and more often have partner adjustment problems.
In short: divorce is more common than it used to be, and has several bad effects on the divorced couple and their children. This brings us back to our initial question, about the existence of ‘happily ever after’. The question that needs to be answered is not about what happens if ‘happily ever after’ doesn’t apply, but how we make sure that is does. How do people remain happy with each other? How can we, as a society, make sure that ‘happily ever after’ becomes more common?
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- Hackstaff, K. B. (1993). The rise of divorce culture and its gendered foundations: III. Feminism & Psychology, 3(3), 363-368.
- Heaton, T. B., & Albrecht, S. L. (1991). Stable unhappy marriages. Journal Of Marriage & TheFamily, 53(3), 747-758.
- Symoens, S., Bastaits, K., Mortelmans, D., & Bracke, P. (2013). Breaking up, breaking hearts? Characteristics of the divorce process and well-being after divorce. Journal Of Divorce & Remarriage, 54(3), 177-196.
- Wade, T. J., & Pevalin, D. J. (2004). Marital Transitions and Mental Health. Journal Of Health And Social Behavior, 45(2), 155-170. Wallerstein, J., Lewis, J., & Packer Rosenthal, S. (2013). Mothers and their children after divorce: Report from a 25-year longitudinal study. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 30(2), 167-184.
- Centraal Bureau Statistiek http://statline.cbs.nl/StatWeb/publication/?VW=T&DM=SLNL&PA=37425ned&D1=3-9&D2=(l-11)- l&HD=100526-0713&STB=G1,T
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg/key_statistics/d.htm