Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sex, Lies, and Marriage Statistics

My anonymous Devil's Advocate wrote:
Here is a thought which I am sharing with you to end on a note of optimism:

All marriages have their ups and downs. Recent research using a large national sample found that eighty six percent of people who were unhappily married in the late 1980s, and stayed with the marriage, indicated when interviewed five years later that they were happier. Indeed, three fifths of the formerly unhappily married couples rated their marriages as either “very happy” or “quite happy.”
Anais followed up with this remark:
The cynic in me thinks that at least some of the formerly unhappy respondents are happier in later years because they meanwhile entered into secret romantic/sexual arrangements with someone other than their spouse. I'm happier these days than I was five years ago for that reason, but this is not how I want to live.
This statistic intrigued me because I couldn't recall having read it elsewhere. Google helped me track it down. It comes from the book The Case for Marriage by Maggie Gallagher and Linda Waite. A summary of some of the book's findings can be found in an article at the Christianity Today website.

I didn't find any websites that tried to debunk the statistic, but I did find a relationship website that called the conclusion into question. Quoting from that website (emphasis mine):

What happened was this. Linda Waite looked at a national survey asking many questions about families and households. She then pulled a very small section out of a very large survey to support her assertion.

The point of the survey was not to investigate this question, and alternative explanations are just as likely to be true. For example, from the data you can just as plausibly argue that people who are in an unhappy marriages will lie about the condition of their marriage if they are still in the same marriage five years later.

Or following this line of argument you might tell your son or daughter unhappy working at McDonald's not to bother with college. Why? Because you saw a survey that said people who said they were unhappy flipping burgers at McDonald's five years ago, now say they are 'happy' or 'very happy' flipping burgers.

In the fall of 2000, Salon ran an amusing interview with Gallagher and Waite. Not only does the author challenge the authors on their interpretation of statistics, but he seems to have some fun rattling Gallagher's cage.

More recently, Gallagher has been subject to scrutiny over the ethically questionable act of not disclosing a $21,500 Dept. of Health and Human Services contract while promoting and defending policies on marriage proposed by the Bush Administration.

In Chapter 2 of The Divorce Remedy, Michele Weiner Davis posits five developmental stages of a marriage, which might be summarized as:
  1. passion
  2. regret
  3. blame
  4. acceptance
  5. togetherness
The 86 percent statistic, if true, probably validates Weiner Davis' thesis, at least in overall progression. I'm still skeptical of that high number and will probably do some more Googling on the topic if I ever get super bored.

Personally, I don't think a "wait out the storm" approach is going to fix this marriage. If changes don't happen soon, it will be a matter of poorer rather than richer, (stress induced) sickness rather than health.

Both my wife and I come from poorly differentiated family backgrounds, and the level of emotional fusion is high. It's going to require something on the order of plate tectonics to set things right, and the only approach that comes near to that is Schnarch's crucible paradigm.

As painful as that sounds, there is hope. Schnarch argues that marriages can be pushed to the brink and bounce back if differentiation develops. In fact, he argues that this process is what makes people grow and mature.
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