Unbeknownst to me, family lawyers apparently call January “divorce month.” As the Christmas tree is thrown out and the wrapping paper cleared away, the empty champagne bottles taken out behind the garage, Google searches for terms like “divorce lawyer” and “file for divorce” spike.
Brad Wilcox and Samuel Sturgeon of the Institute for Family Studies suggest that there might be good reason to hold off, particularly if you have kids. Of course, there might be good reason not to hold off. But the majority of divorces involving kids don’t come from “high conflict” marriages or situations involving abuse; Wilcox and Sturgeon point to data indicating that most divorces come from couples who are still basically functioning as parents.
Kids whose parents divorce amid flying crockery and lurid accusations may actually do better, post-divorce, than kids whose parents unhappily fizzle out. But that’s not all that surprising. In homes with major conflict, divorce brings a certain measure of peace and stability. But if your parents are basically civil to each other, divorce could come as an unwelcome surprise.
Our parents, our family unit, are the first and most bedrock fact of our lives. Suddenly breaking that apart – for no reason apparent to the children involved – shakes a faith in the world that will never be rebuilt in quite the same way. Moreover, divorce often means downward economic mobility. Unless you are hugely wealthy, splitting your income across two households means that sacrifices have to be made by both parties, and often, that financial stress is added to the emotional upheaval of unraveling two lives.
Small wonder, then, that the children of divorce tend to have worse outcomes on various measures than the children whose parents stay together: According to Wilcox and Sturgeon, “Divorce typically doubles or triples the odds that children will experience depression, delinquency, school failure, or future relationship difficulties.”
But children aren’t the only reason to consider sticking it out. Divorce may also be emotionally and financially traumatic for adults. And it’s not clear that in the end, people who leave low-conflict marriages end up any happier than those who stick it out. Some people consider divorce at one point but don’t go through with it. When they are asked about it later, most of them say they’re glad they didn’t do it. One study compared people who divorced with people who didn’t, finding that the people who didn’t divorce ended up as happy as those who did.
We have a script in our heads about what divorce does. Two people meet, they fall in love, they develop irreconcilable differences, and must split so that at least one of the parties can develop into their truest, highest self.
But research suggests a different truth about happiness. As Daniel Gilbert argues in the brilliant book “Stumbling on Happiness,” whatever we are stuck with, whatever we commit to, we will be just as happy with it as we would have been with any other outcome.
Under this theory, all other forces being equal, those who avoid divorce end up with the same long-term level of happiness that they would have had post-divorce – and they skip the short-term financial and emotional pains of separation.
So a lot of people thinking about observing National Divorce Month might be better off delaying the festivities and hunting for reasons to celebrate their marriage instead.