People With Doubts About Marrying Their Partners Have Higher Rates Of Divorce

Would it surprise you to learn that according to new research, men and women who harbored doubts about marrying their partners have a higher rate of divorce after four years of marriage?  It sounds like one of those no-brainer discoveries.  But it reminded me of what one of my graduate school professors said some decades ago, that it can be useful to “demonstrate the obvious.”

Here’s why, in this case: The research underscores how often people know an inner truth, but don’t act on it.  They might hold back because of various fears, such as fear of affirming themselves. Or, from pressure to acquiesce to what their families or conventional thinking tells them their “right” decision should be.

I’ve seen several examples, such as a corporate executive I’ve been helping to better integrate his leadership role and his personal life goals. While reflecting on the latter, he said, “I remember, as I was walking down the isle – literally – to marry her, I said to myself, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this.  I’m making a huge mistake.’”

Let’s look at what the new research found, and what it tells people that’s important to heed – for those at the entry point of marriage, and for those much further down that road.

Researchers at UCLA interviewed 464 couples about how they viewed the partners they were about to marry.  Those who harbored doubts about marrying their spouses had a much higher divorce rate after 4 years than those who didn’t.  The research, reported in the Journal of Family Psychology, found that 47% of husbands and 38% of wives said they had doubts about marrying their partners at the outset.

Subsequently, 19% of the women who had pre-wedding doubts ended up divorced four years later, compared with 8% of those who didn’t have doubt.  And 14% of the husbands who reported doubts were divorced four years later, compared with 9% who reported no doubts.

Researchers took into account such factors as how satisfied the spouses were with their relationships to begin with, whether their parents were divorced, and whether the couple lived together before marriage. Couples were followed up every six months for four years, after marriage. The average age of the husbands was 27; for wives, 25.

Justin Lavner, the lead author of the study, said in a summary of the research, “People think everybody has premarital doubts and you don’t have to worry about them. We found they are common but not benign. Newlywed wives who had doubts about getting married before their wedding were two-and-a-half times more likely to divorce four years later than wives without these doubts.”

But note that even the men who had doubts were nearly twice as likely to divorce than men without doubts. Moreover, those who had doubts but were still married after four years reported less marital satisfaction than those without doubts.

What It Means

More than just a lesson to be mindful of your doubts, I think this research reflects the fact that what people want from relationships is in the midst of transformation, today – both for younger men and women at the “entry level;” and for those married for some time

The transformation is evident in: Rising cohabitation rather than marriage. Increasing acceptance of gay marriage by the general public.  Diminishing social stigma about affairs. Desire for greater transparency and equality in relationships as well as throughout society.  These realities push up against old conventions, norms and traditional definitions of partnerships.  That generates personal and social upheaval.

Now there’s even a growing movement to decriminalize polygamy.  John Witte Jr., scholar of religion and law at Emory University in Atlanta, believes that polygamy is the next frontier in marriage and family law. In a Washington Post article, he points out that states are able to dismantle traditional or conventional views of marriage by allowing two men or two women to wed, so why should they not go further and sanction, or at least decriminalize, marriages between one man and several women?

As far as the long-term “damage” from divorce that some claim, that doesn’t hold up with the data. One example, cited by University of Virginia marriage researcher E. Mavis Hetherington, is that 60% of divorced people eventually end up with new partners, in positive relationships.

Whatever you think about these social shifts, the fact is that many marriages become marked by low-level emotional intimacy, inequality regarding power, and an unsatisfying sexual life.  That’s almost the norm.  Therefore it would be wise for men and women at the “entry level” of marriage, as well as those within longer-term marriages, to engage in some fact-checking with themselves:
by Douglas LaBier, Ph.D.

9 thoughts on “People With Doubts About Marrying Their Partners Have Higher Rates Of Divorce

  1. It’s a man’s world. Notice that the polygamy relationship suggest men with multiple women… what about women with multiple men? (although I disagree with it either way)

    I question this… Diminishing social stigma about affairs. If people enter a relationship where they are committing to each other, then affairs should never be tolerated or accepted.

    I think people are just selfish.

    1. ya it’s funny no one tends to mention one girl with several husbands! I’m not sure it’s a man’s world around the Williams house but it seems to be with polygamy, probably at least in part to the fundamentalist/conservative religious affiliations although I haven’t studied it enough.

      It was hilarious when I read your comment to my wife she said, “so maybe I should ask Rod (my close buddy) to marry me and we could be one big happy family! For some reason I didn’t find that as hilarious as i once did!

      People are selfish, I agree.

  2. I vote also for monogamy. I think relationships are like mining. You find a nugget on the surface, but the real gold is much deeper, through rock. Some lose patience and will live on nuggets. Those who persevere hit the mother-lode and will be richer than any ‘grazer’.

  3. Right! And people feel so disappointed when things can’t be the way the used to, and when they don’t feel as intensely in love with and attracted to each other as they did during the first two months of dating. In a way, this sounds like an addiction. In the beginning, everything seems to be so good, it feels great, and there is nothing like it. But then, people find themselves going after that first “high” and they can’t find it, feel it, or reach it anymore.

    Same thing with relationships. When people realize that it is not a happily-ever-after relationship, they miss and crave that first “high” and go after it, trying different people over and over in order to feel that way. Sadly, sooner or later they develop tolerance to it.

  4. Hi Scott,

    Great post. I don’t know how I feel about polygamy and the like. I like the structure: husband + wife + honesty + loyalty + children = Family. Although, I try to stay neutral about many things in life.

    Long term relationships are big investment of time, money, emotional and physical energy…I mean, taking care of your marriage is a 24/7 job. I just don’t see how people can do that times 2, 3, or whatever the number of wives and/or husbands…

    I am a firm believer of “everything in moderation.” But then again moderation is very relative.

    1. Ya I get that. My wife and I were out for dinner last night and were talking about how people have no idea when they are romantically involved that they are about to commit 50 years to a person they don’t really know at their worst. Plus we both said that in that time your partner changes several times from the person you dated.

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