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East: Effects Of Divorce On Happiness

Divorce rates are high in most countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, but a new study conducted in the United States says there are alternatives to solving the problems that plague married couples. Our correspondent learned about the findings in an interview with the study's leading researcher.

Washington, 16 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A new study concludes that couples who become dissatisfied with their marriages have a greater chance of long-term happiness and emotional well-being if they resist the urge to divorce and endure the difficult times together.

Researchers at the University of Chicago, Illinois, as well as at other universities, conducted the study on more than 5,000 married adults who expressed some state of unhappiness with their marriage. They interviewed the same couples five years later, some who had stayed together and some who had divorced or separated.

The lead author of the study, Linda Waite, a sociologist, told RFE/RL that some of the findings of the study were surprising. For example, interviews with the participants indicated that those who had avoided divorce and weathered the difficult times were just as happy five years later as those who had split up.

"Talking about bad marriages makes it sound as if the marriages really fall into one category or the other, and they don't change. But in fact, marriages tend to wax and wane, I think, so that somebody could be unhappy with a marriage now, but it doesn't mean -- probably doesn't mean -- they are going to be unhappy with it later."

Waite said the study uncovered many and varied reasons for unhappiness in a marriage, including money problems, physical and emotional abuse, alcoholism, drug use, irresponsible or erratic behavior, communication difficulties, stress, and infidelity. She said the researchers were surprised to learn that the problems most often cited by couples for causing unhappiness in the marriage had nothing or little to do with the actual condition of the union itself, but were a result of external causes.

For example, she said, one couple cited unhappiness with their marriage because of the stress of dealing with their drug-addicted teenager. Another couple complained of feeling isolated because the husband worked long hours and the wife was home with the young children. When both issues were eventually resolved -- the teenager got help and the children grew older -- the strain on the marriage eased and both couples became happy again, she said.

Waite says, "For the people who had an external cause, just waiting it out was most successful -- what we call the 'marital endurance ethic.'"

David Popenoe, a professor of sociology at Rutger's University in New Jersey, told RFE/RL that although the study was conducted on Americans, the results are applicable throughout the world -- especially regarding external pressures on a marriage like drug or alcohol abuse. "I think the world over, marriage has to be looked at as something that requires continuing activity and effort on the part of the partners to keep it going. And in situations where it is up against difficult times, it takes even more effort."

Indeed, divorce is a growing problem worldwide, especially in the countries of the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. According to statistics from 1998 -- the most recent year for which data are available -- and compiled from the U.S. Census Bureau and the data-gathering company Infoplease, Belarus has the highest divorce rate in the world with 68 percent of all marriages ending in dissolution.

In fact, the statistics say four out of the top five countries ranked for divorce in the world are in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. After Belarus, Russia ranks second with 65 percent of all marriages ending in divorce; Latvia and Ukraine are ranked third and fourth, with 63 percent each; and the Czech Republic is fifth, with a 61 percent divorce rate.

Sweden was the only other country to penetrate the top five, in third place with a 64 percent divorce rate. The United States ranks 12th in the world, with a divorce rate of 49 percent; Great Britain is 10th with a rate of 53 percent; and Germany 17th with 41 percent.

Other countries showing significant divorce rates were Moldova, at 52 percent; Kazakhstan, with 39 percent; and Slovakia, with 34 percent. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan has an 18 percent divorce rate, followed by Azerbaijan and Croatia at 15 percent each, and Tajikistan at 13 percent.

Waite said that while there are legitimate reasons for divorce -- most notably physical and mental abuse, as well as severe drug and alcohol problems -- many couples can regain their feelings of satisfaction with the union by enduring difficult times. "Those things tend to get better if you wait, and then the causes of the unhappiness are gone."

Waite said couples who consult family members, counselors, or religious figures tend to have a better chance of resolving the problems that threaten their marriages. In some cases, she said, hobbies, sports or other outside activities also tend to relieve such stress.

On the other hand, Waite said, divorce creates an emotionally upsetting chain of events over which individuals have little or no control. This could include the reactions of children and other relatives, financial concerns, the uncertainty of new relationships, and feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

As a result, Waite concluded that while divorce is sometimes warranted, it is not always the best way to resolve serious marital problems.