Happy Marriages: Studying the Causes and Effects of Divorce

Nancy Marie Brown
January 01, 2002

"In the 1970s, divorce escalated like crazy. Women were entering the labor force in incredible numbers. Are those two things related," asks Alan Booth, "or aren't they?

"And if divorce is not related to women working, what is it related to?"

Booth, a Penn State sociologist, has been asking that question for 20 years. He himself has been divorced and remarried in the meantime, as has his co-investigator on the National Longitudinal Study of Marriage, Paul Amato. More to the point, they and their colleagues have amassed hours of survey data on 2,000 married men and women, interviewed by telephone, paper, or computer survey up to six times over the 20 years, "through a whole marital history, if you like," says Amato. "Some people in the study are on their third or fourth marriages. We've followed them through divorce, singlehood, and remarriage."

They've also interviewed many of their children.

Then in 2000, the research team interviewed a completely new random sample of 2,100 married individuals. "So we can look at two different kinds of change," Amato explains: "How individual marriages change over time, and how the population of married couples has changed between 1980 and 2000."

Their results are changing the way people think about marriage and divorce, and particularly about the effects of divorce on children.

"I think it's our study," says Booth, "that put the capstone on the idea that divorce can be bad for children. That's influenced a lot of family therapists to get parents to focus on the kids.

"The thing we'd like to have an effect on are all the people who get a divorce who are not in high-conflict marriages. They're not in great marriages, maybe, but they're in okay marriages. Can they be encouraged to stick with it until the kids are grown?"

Women working, Booth and his colleagues found, does not cause divorce. "We solved that problem pretty quickly," says Booth. "There were probably some mild effects early on, but people really enjoy the two incomes."

Over the last 20 years, notes Amato, "Family income went up a lot. Not because the wages of the men went up—men's wages have remained stagnant—but because the women entered the workforce and salaries for women did go up." According to their most recent surveys, 60 percent of married women are now employed, and their families are better off for it, both economically and psychologically. "In 2000, married individuals are more likely to own their own homes, they have higher incomes, they report they feel good about their family's economic wellbeing, a smaller proportion are using public assistance—there's not as much economic stress," Amato says.

"And family life is more egalitarian in terms of who is making the decisions," he adds. "Both husbands and wives are telling us this. In 1980, it was common for the husband to say he makes all the decisions. But when families reach decisions together, we've found, they're happier. Equality is good for a marriage. It's good for both husbands and wives. If the wife goes from a patriarchal marriage to an egalitarian one, she'll be much happier, much less likely to look for a way out. And in the long run, the husbands are happier too."

What exactly do people mean when they say they're happily married, and what prompts them to consider divorce?

When they began the study in 1980, Booth and his colleagues, then at the University of Nebraska, came up with a long list of variables besides women's working, including how many children a couple had, their relationship with their parents, if the parents were divorced, whether they moved a lot, their income, their employment patterns, the household division of labor, and their general attitudes. Other sociologists had devised good surveys to measure several of these variables; these Booth and his colleagues adapted to their study.

"But we felt that the existing measures of marital quality weren't adequate," Booth explains. "It was more than a feeling of happiness or satisfaction, we felt. It included the amount of marital interaction— of interaction that was not conflict.

"So we developed this new concept of divorce proneness or marital instability. We wanted to measure whether or not people thought about divorce, or talked to friends about divorce, or had seen a counselor, or had filed for divorce. Or is a divorce underway?" Divorce proneness also included personality attributes ("flies off the handle," "won't talk about it," "has irritating habits") and problem behaviors (trouble with the law, infidelity, drinking or drugs, child abuse). The measure has revealed that there are many kinds of happy and unhappy marriages. "There are people who are real unhappy but who wouldn't even think of divorce," Booth explains, "and people who say they are happy but don't see much of each other."

What predicts divorce? "One of the best predictors of not getting a divorce," Amato says, "is owning a house. Buying a house is a representation of commitment. People are reluctant to sell it. It's hard to divide. Irrespective of family income, to be in the process of buying or paying off a house is stabilizing."

A strong risk factor, on the other hand, is what Booth and Amato call "intergenerational transmission of divorce." Says Amato, "If your parents were divorced, it's twice as likely that your own marriage will end in divorce. It's one of the strongest risk factors, actually."

Amato offers a number of possible explanations: Being a child of divorce could shape a person's attitudes. "If you've seen your parents model divorce as a solution for a bad marriage, you may be more accepting of it You may tend to think about divorce at lower thresholds of problems." On the other hand, if you watched your parents work out their disagreements, you're less likely to see divorce as a solution. "Some people come into a marriage committed to it for life," Amato notes. "Others say, sometimes divorce is unpleasant, but it's still an option."

"Some of that transmission of divorce," Amato adds, "seems to come from a deficit in interpersonal skills. In our study, we found people who had been divorced were more likely to report not listening to what their spouse was saying or getting angry and losing their temper. One person tried to dominate the marriage. There was an unwillingness to compromise. In a divorced family, children don't learn how to communicate effectively because they don't see their parents modelling it. Many of them grow up and enter marriage without the skills they need to maintain a relationship."

Another risk factor for divorce, strangely, is living together, Amato says. "Couples who cohabitate prior to marriage report more problems and are more likely to think about divorce. That's opposite to what you'd expect. When this finding first began to be noticed and was replicated over and over, we thought it was a selection process. People who cohabitate tend to be less religious, less traditional, more liberal. Perhaps it's not surprising that they accept divorce. The same traits that predict if you will cohabitate also predict problems in your marriage.

"But our more recent information suggests there may be something about living together that actually makes you more unconventional. That the behavior shapes your attitudes. What I think part of the problem is, people are less thoughtful about a decision to cohabitate than a decision to marry. People very rarely marry without giving it some thought. But they might wind up cohabitating with someone. Then, once they're cohabitating, there's a momentum that leads them to marry. There's pressure to get married from others. The potential of having children is more likely. They're more reluctant to break up because they're a 'thing' together—they've bought pots and pans together. People wind up with partners they may not be compatible with. It's a drift into marriage. Or, when things start causing problems, people who are cohabitating will say, 'Let's get married,' as if that will solve everything."

man and woman pose for picture in sunglasses

Booth feels the most important result of their 20-year study has been to illustrate the effect of divorce on kids.

"We discovered that kids from certain kinds of marriages didn't suffer much at all from a divorce," says Booth, "whereas kids from other kinds of marriages did. When kids came from a high-conflict home, they did pretty well when the marriage finally ended and they got out of it. They did almost as well as children from intact marriages on all sorts of measures. We looked at whether or not they were depressed, their sense of well-being, if they were married and, if so, how well they got along with their spouses, at their friendships, and at their relationships with relatives.

"But on every measure, we found that coming from a low-conflict marriage that ends in divorce had a devastating effect on the kids." Not having seen their parents fighting, "they were caught totally by surprise," Booth notes. "The divorce wasn't something they desired at all." They had no way of understanding their parents were unhappy. "What they'd gotten to know and gotten used to—that looks good to a kid. When all of that is threatened, it has a devastating effect on a kid. They could see nothing but bad things following from it."

So who are the people getting divorced but not fighting? They're risk-takers, people who generally have favorable attitudes toward divorce. And they often have someone new waiting in the wings. Socially, says Booth, "They are people who are somewhat isolated. They're detached. They move a lot. They're not involved in a church. They have less contact with their relatives. They are less likely to own a home. They hadn't experienced a divorce themselves and had little idea what effect it would have on their children. Basically, they weren't thinking about the children at all."

Booth and Amato, on the other hand, think couples in these so-so marriages should think of the children first. "We do upset people," Booth says, "because we advocate that attention needs to be paid to the children." And they have the data to back up their opinion. "The effect is much less if the divorce occurs when the child is in late adolescence," Booth explains. "When they're out of the home, they're affected even less. Then they don't have to live through the divorce. They're not so likely to lose contact with one set of their relatives. They don't have to cut off contact with their father or mother.

"We certainly aren't in the camp of people who say the covenant of marriage is the answer, but we do think parents should say, 'The children are at risk. Let's stay together a little longer.'"

Besides, their data also show that divorce isn't always a cure for someone's marital problems. "We looked at people in the sample who married, got a divorce, and remarried to see how the second marriage differed from the first, and how the quality of the first marriage carried over into the second," Booth says.

"We found that the correlation of marital happiness and marital interaction was very low. The second marriage was different from the first one, but then the question becomes, was it any better? The vast majority of people had 'no gain.' A minority reported it got better, and a very small minority reported that the second marriage was worse. For the vast majority, it's different, but not an improvement. Things traded off.

"A marriage is a hard thing to maintain," Booth concludes. "The only thing that's harder is raising children."

Alan Booth, Ph.D., is distinguished professor of sociology, human development, and demography, College of the Liberal Arts, 211 Oswald Tower, University Park PA 16802; 814-863-1141; axb24@psu.edu. Paul Amato, Ph.D., is professor of sociology and demography; 604 Oswald Tower; 865-8868; pxa6@psu.edu. Their work was funded by the National Institute on Aging and Penn State's Population Research Institute, which is supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Last Updated January 01, 2002