Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Curiouser and Curiouser

Surprising Facts and Figures about Families, Parenting and Kids

In most cases, I cite the relevant sources. Corrections welcome.

Families & Couples

  • In a 2002 study of “unhappy” marriages and spouses from such marriages, researchers found that divorce did not ensure that spouses, overall, became more happy. It was more likely (two-thirds of “unhappy” marriages/spouses studied) that spouses became more happy staying in the marriage and weathering various marital storms—including having children, depressive episodes, infidelity, financial stress and what the researchers called “men behaving badly.” Spouses who divorced, on average, showed no significant improvements in well-being, self-empowerment, personal efficacy or depressive symptoms and showed an overall increase in use of alcohol. (I’m guessing alcohol use may increase as a result of more time spent out in public venues like bars.)
  • Marital counseling, especially secular marital counseling, did not play any significant role in helping couples to stay married. Couples, and especially men, were wary of couples’ counseling and especially “value neutral” counseling that was perceived as not valuing the institution of marriage itself. More helpful—according to spouses interviewed—were invested outsiders, such as family members and clergy, who encouraged couples to “stick with it.”
  • Almost 8 of 10 spouses who had reported that their marriages were “very unhappy” reported themselves as happily married (to the same spouse) five years later. (In other words, the most unhappy marriages reported the most dramatic turnarounds.)
  • No significant differences were found in education and income levels between those reporting themselves as happily or unhappily married after five years.
  • Often, only one spouse in a marriage reports as “unhappy.”
  • Wives were most often the “barometers” of whether the marriage was happy or not … Although men in marriages that “became happy” reported making significant changes or shifts in their thinking and behaviors to create a better marriage. (In other words, men had little awareness of how their behaviors impacted their marriages, but were able to gain awareness and make changes.)
  • The birth of first and second children significantly impacted marital happiness for the worse. However, dedication to the well-being of children was a potent force in keeping marriages intact. Enjoyment of children together was then cited as one of the many benefits in marriages that eventually become happy. (This is a very touching section, with quotes from participants, in the study report.)
  • The threat of divorce, when seen as real, was a major incentive to many spouses—especially men—to “get it together” and change.
  • Commonly cited reasons for why a marriage improved: time passing, or just “sticking it out” (number one!); a “marital endurance ethic”; improved communication/adjustments.
  • Researchers found that “commitment [to marriage] is not just a side effect [of a happy marriage], but is also a cause of relationship happiness.” Entertaining the idea of divorce or separation over time, or “continually wondering whether your marriage is good enough to keep can be exhausting … When people are intensely committed to their marriages, they invest more in the relationship, they minimize the importance of differences they can’t resolve … they have a powerful incentive to understand their partner’s actions in the best possible light, and to be an advocate for their spouse as well as themselves.”
  • One wife in the study said: “I just had to try to ride it out and not bitch so much.” One man said his father (who lived in Ghana) told him: “It’s not any easier with another wife!”
  • When marriages were extremely bad and involved physical conflict and violence, there was a benefit in divorcing for spouses interviewed. This was a very small number of all marriages studies (four to six percent).

--“Does Divorce Make People Happy?: Findings from a Study of Unhappy Marriages,” 2002, Institute for American Values (this study is available as a highly readable 39-page document online).

  • “Good” divorces are not necessarily better for children than two parents staying in a somewhat unhappy (or “low-conflict”) marriage. A study by author Elizabeth Marquadt (“Between Two Worlds”) and Dr. Norval Glenn at the University of Texas at Austin shows that divorce, no matter how amicable “still takes a toll on children’s overall well being, as well as their own future marital success.” Impact on children includes “much less ability to trust and little idea of what a lasting marriage looks like” (from U.T. Austin website article, “The Divorce Dilemma,” 2006). According to Dr. Glenn, “Even by being good people and marrying good people, [these children of ‘good’ divorce] feel they cannot assure that their marriage will work.”
  • The study also found that “if the marriage is so bad it leaves the primary parent, usually the mother, so depressed she can’t parent effectively, the children are usually better off after the parents divorce. However, only a minority of divorces of couples with children is of this nature …”
  • “The separation of parents bifurcates children’s inner lives, forcing them to become navigators, conciliators and emotional caregivers at an early age, all of which leaves them with a sense of tentativeness and isolation even as adults … Children whose parents remain in somewhat unhappy, low conflict marriages … fare better in certain crucial spheres than children of divorce.” –from “Straight Talk about Happy Talk: Is there such a thing as a good divorce?” online article in OpinionJournal.

I am raising perhaps controversial points here about divorce and marriage not to make divorced parents feel guilty (which is never helpful), but to help currently married or coupled parents come to grips. Ultimately, one’s inner wisdom, one’s “sense of knowing,” which arises from a calm feeling state, is one’s best guide and last word in all life matters. However, I believe these statistics point to state of mind as the essential variable, more than “externals” in our lives, as the main determinant of we are “happy” or not. It is our state of mind that our children bathe in, and breathe in—from which they nurse. Is it possible that your state of mind, within your marriage, could shift?

I myself am a child of divorce and, because I am, I am certainly the one in my marriage who has thought of divorce more often, who has wondered if there is “something better out there” and if all my “needs” are being met.

My husband, who comes from a large and intact, tightly-knit family, reports that he does not think this way at all. (I think this is sub-consciously why I married him). When I needed an “excuse” to settle my mind and become happy, these facts and figures appeared in my life. They explained a lot for me. When I commit to my marriage and my children, I experience the joy of companionship and partnership, humor and love, togetherness. I am not committing to an institution or body of moral law, I am simply committing to Now. I am committing to the one who happens to be by my side. I am committing to a love that sometimes cannot be seen.

Socio-political debates about marriage as an institution are relevant in context. However, I believe that conservatives and progressives alike deeply (and sometimes sub-consciously) value Love and caring—as well as individual freedom. And we all do, or should, value children.

If we can adjust our own thinking and expectations, setting our sights on happiness within our current circumstances, then happy outcomes (and more harmonious external circumstances) result from this internal shift, including happy and harmonious outcomes for our children.

Recommended Reading: “A Book for Couples” and “I Will Never Leave You: How Couples Can Achieve the Power of Lasting Love” Hugh & Gayle Prather, “The Relationship Handbook,” George Pransky, “Whole Child/Whole Parent” Polly Berrien Berends.

More curious family stats to come ...

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