MARRIAGE AS LEARNED BEHAVIOR: CAN DIVORCE BE FORETOLD?
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
Marriage as learned behavior: Can divorce be foretold?
By Kyung M. Song
Seattle Times staff reporter
It may sound like a conservative's marriage manifesto: Pick a partner with a
similar background, don't shack up without an engagement ring and stick with
even a lifeless marriage for your kids' sake.
But following that creed could avert divorce, which, statistics show, can be
perilous to your health.
Researchers have persuasively linked certain demographic and socioeconomic
factors--many of which you can't control--with higher odds of marital
breakup. Your race, occupation, income, age at first wedding, the length of
courtship and whether you have children from previous relationships all can
preordain the success of your marriage even before the "I dos."
Did your parents divorce? Your own marriage is twice as likely to end that
way than if you grew up in an intact family. Do you and your spouse practice
different religions? Chances are your marriage won't endure as well as those
of couples who worship together.
Divorce's toll on body, mind
About 40 percent of American marriages end in a divorce. Marital disruptions
strain child-parent bonds (particularly between fathers and children),
plunge many women into financial hardship and can show human nature at its
Divorce also is hard on the body and mind. Divorced people suffer more
health problems, are more depressed and tend to drink and smoke more heavily
than people who are married or have partners. A 2003 study by researchers at
San Diego State University and the University of Pittsburgh found that
happily married women have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and
are thinner than females who are divorced, single, widowed or stuck in
For some people, divorce can be lethal. Divorced men are twice as likely to
kill themselves as men with spouses or live-in partners, according to a 2000
analysis of U.S. mortality data by Augustine Kposowa, a sociologist at the
University of California, Riverside.
Kposowa found that being white and living on the West Coast elevated the
risk of suicide. But divorce or separation were the most significant
contributors to risk of suicide in men. Being single or widowed did not
increase the risk.
The health effects of divorce on children depend partly on the degree of
civility between the parents. Though children generally are better off in
two-parent households, marriages marked by open contempt, constant criticism
and vicious arguments can exact a huge psychological toll on them. Numerous
studies show that such children can develop mental-health problems, ranging
from lowered self-esteem to depression and anxiety to greater aggression. In
such cases, the children's mental and emotional well-being actually improves
after the couple parts ways.
Why not just give up?
With the stakes so high, how could anyone handicapped by demographics and
family history hazard marrying?
"If you want to be rational, you might want to interview your dating
partner" for divorce risks, joked Nicholas Wolfinger, author of
Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in Their Own
Marriages (Cambridge University Press), published this year.
Wolfinger analyzed data on 33,000 Americans from two major national
household surveys to calculate how divorces recur through generations. His
conclusion: Having divorced parents greatly jeopardizes the odds of keeping
one's marriage intact and heightens the likelihood of multiple divorces.
Wolfinger found that when both husband and wife come from families of
divorce, they are nearly three times more likely to split up than couples
whose parents stayed married. If a parent was divorced at least twice, the
odds that an offspring's marriage will survive are only one in three.
Wolfinger attributed the phenomenon partly to learned behavior. Having seen
their parents give up on a marriage, people are more likely to bail when
their own relationships turn turbulent.
Another cause is that, statistically, children of divorce become sexually
active earlier and marry younger than others, said Wolfinger, associate
professor in the University of Utah's Department of Family and Consumer
Various researchers have found a strong correlation between age at time of
marriage and elevated divorce risk. In fact, Scott Stanley, co-director of
the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver,
regards teen marriages as the most vulnerable of unions.
"My belief is young age at marriage would trump everything else" as a
divorce predictor, Stanley said. "People getting married at 18 are at such
Stanley says people who marry young lack the maturity and coping skills to
sustain long-term relationships. They also choose ill-suited mates. "If they
had married at 22, they would have married a different person," Stanley
Living together: a risky trial
Contrary to what many people believe, "test driving" a relationship by
living together before marriage also reduces the odds of success. The exact
reasons are unclear. It may be that couples make riskier picks with a
live-in partner than they would with a potential spouse. Or couples who
defer marriage and opt to live together first may do so because they have
trouble with commitment.
After they move in together, some couples eventually walk down the aisle as
a result of inertia, not love. Undoing the entanglements of a live-in
relationship can be a hassle, especially if the couple has children, Stanley
Sliding into marriage becomes "a transition without a decision," Stanley
said. "For a lot of young people, it's not a real deliberative thing.
They're not really thinking, 'Are you the one?' 'Am I the one?' "
A 2002 analysis by Jay Teachman, a sociologist at Western Washington
University, found that living together increases the risk of divorce by 35
percent when those couples eventually marry.
According to Teachman, Americans are less likely to divorce if they are
Catholic, have high education levels, marry someone close to their own age
and don't have children before wedlock. For instance, the chances of divorce
for a woman who is five or more years older than her husband is 88 percent
greater than for couples without the age gap. Teachman based his
calculations on more than two decades' worth of data from the National
Survey of Family Growth.
Addressing the risks
So, is your marriage destined for doom if you are, say, a Presbyterian who
got his Jewish, college-freshman girlfriend pregnant and married her after
merely three months of dating? Not if you steer clear of the pitfalls
associated with the risk factors, according to Stanley, the marital
Couples who possess many "fixed" risk factors can work to overcome them,
said Stanley, who also is a developer of PREP (Prevention and Relationship
Enhancement Program), a couples-counseling program used throughout the
United States. Spouses with different religions, for instance, could discuss
how they might handle their children's faith before it becomes an issue.
Stanley said couples should cultivate a long-term view of marriage,
understanding that even the strongest relationships sometimes will be
buffeted by trials. Commitment, he said, stems from making the marriage a
high priority. Spouses should resist fleeing at the first hint of major
trouble, even if they stay mainly because they don't want to divide up the
house or avoid the embarrassment of a divorce, Stanley said.
"Without constraints, even average marriages will fall apart," Stanley said.
"Constraint keeps us from doing some stupid things in the short term."
For the sake of the kids?
Couples in distressed marriages may feel compelled to remain together if
they have children, said Paul Amato, professor of sociology and demography
at Penn State University. And in many cases, children benefit from that
choice. Even if the spouses are miserable, Amato said, children tend to be
better adjusted and achieve more in a two-parent home.
Sometimes parents use the children to justify divorce. "Parents think, 'If
I'm happier, my children will be happier.' That's not necessarily true.
Children want access to both parents," Amato said. Divorce involving
children "is not a private issue any more. It's a public issue."
But Amato said that does not hold for couples whose relationship has turned
toxic, marked by constant fighting, hostility and verbal or physical
attacks. "A lot of kids would be better off if the parents split," Amato
For the same reason, Wolfinger, the divorce-cycle researcher, opposes
toughening divorce laws. Making divorces more difficult to obtain will mean
that only the very worst marriages will be dissolved, he said. That means
children in these marriages will suffer more.
If divorces run in cycles, so, too, it seems, do marriages. Research shows
that some marriages can survive if the couples simply hang tight.
"With some couples, if they get through the bad patch, things just get
better," Amato said. "After three, five or 10 years, they grow closer
To Stanley, even the most seemingly disastrous unions have a shot at lasting
"It doesn't necessarily doom you," Stanley said. "It's more hopeful than one
Factors that put you at a higher risk of divorce:
- Having divorced parents
- Marrying young
- Living together before engagement
- Being previously divorced or marrying a divorced partner
- Having a child before marriage (and, to a lesser extent, getting pregnant before the wedding)
- Being much older or younger than your spouse
- Marrying someone of a different race
- Following different religions or no religion
- Having low education levels
Source: Seattle Times research