It was a turning point in the fictional marriage of Katie and Ben in the movie The Story of Us, starring Michele Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis. Katie tells Ben that she doesn’t want to end their marriage.
“…You always know that I’m a little quiet in the morning and compensate accordingly,” she says to him. “That’s a dance you perfect over time. And it’s hard, it’s much harder than I thought it would be, but there’s more good than bad. And you don’t just give up.”
Many couples in America today find themselves at the same turning point in their marriage. Many who choose to separate often find out that it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. Research has shown that if a person is unhappy, divorce is not necessarily the road to happiness.
A national study in 2002 of 10,000 couples asked them to rate their marriage from life in hell (1) to heaven on earth (7). The couples were interviewed twice, five years apart. The study found that most people rated their marriage as happy. Eighty-one percent of the couples who rated their marriage as life in hell were still together five years later. Out of that group, the majority said they were very happy after five years.
Following this study, University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite wanted to know what makes marriages miserable and discover how they can become happy.
“We often talk about marriage like a piece of fruit – it went bad, as if it is out of our control,” says Waite. “I was interested in determining if the couples who divorced were happier following the divorce than those who chose to stay together in spite of their unhappiness.”
Waite examined the couples who rated their marriage as "life in hell." Of the couples who stayed married, 78 percent were happy with life five years later. Only 53 percent of those who chose to separate or divorce said they were happy.
Waite interviewed couples, asking them to tell their stories about how their bad marriage got better.
Alcoholism, infidelity, overly-critical spouses, chronic miscommunication, irrational jealousy, and emotional neglect all fit into the equation, but the four most common issues that made marriages unhappy were: bad things happening to good spouses, job reversals, the kids and illness. Examples included: a spouse losing their job creating financial strain in the marriage, the challenges of raising children which left no time to be together as a couple, or a spouse making a poor decision during a weak moment.
In response to the question, “How did things get better?” couples described what Waite calls the “marital endurance ethic.”
“Couples shared something like, ‘Mostly we just kept putting one foot in front of the other and things began to get better,’” Waite says. “Many of them were influenced by friends’ advice to hang in there, that they were headed in the right direction.”
A passage of time often has a positive effect on problems, according to Waite. Just because couples are unhappy now doesn’t mean they will be unhappy forever.
Katie and Ben understood that fact. “There’s a history and histories don’t happen overnight,” Katie said.
Katie was able to see past their present moment and look at the big picture. She realized that her husband was a good friend, and good friends are hard to find.