Recently I was traveling on business and happened to sit by a couple of women on the shuttle bus from the airport to the hotel. We struck up a conversation and one of them asked me about what I do. I told her that I studied and taught about family relationships, particularly marriage and parenting, and she became interested in what I studied. I told her that I was engaged in a new research study on couples who at one time have thought about separation or divorce but have remained together and made their relationship work. As we discussed it and my hopes for gaining new knowledge to help couples who struggle, she took a card out of her wallet and gave it to me and said, “My spouse and I qualify for your study and we’d love to share our insights. Give us a call and come visit us.”
I would have been surprised by this encounter if I had not learned that it is not a surprise. What I call “marital reconciliation” is a common phenomenon that we know little about. For example:
- Scott and Leslie, a solid Latter-day Saint couple, had been married over twenty-five years and had several children. Their relationship disintegrated to the point that he moved out and they were separated for many months. They proceeded toward a divorce until, finally, two hours before they were to sign divorce papers he called and asked if they could try one last time. They did. Three years later they are holding hands and trying to make their relationship last forever.
- Jim and Marie had a bright, engaging relationship when they met and married. But early in their marriage it emerged that Marie had experienced some challenges with her family life in the past that made intimacy difficult and discouraging at times. Each loved the other but over time they developed relationship patterns that often resulted in misunderstanding and emotional distance. Each at times seriously considered divorce. But they stayed with each other and worked to improve and today feel positive and hopeful about their future.
- As young coeds at BYU, Mark and Melissa met and married. Their first years together were growing years, rich in love despite occasional disagreements. Then Mark was asked to take a new job and he moved ahead of his young family, spending eight months in a distant state while seeing Melissa and his children occasionally. When they finally completed the move, Mark and Melissa found that an unknown distance had grown between them and their relationship soured. They entered counseling and were able over time to bring their relationship closer again.
The examples I have shared above are real. I have met all of these couples and talked with them individually. Each of them would state something that I learned to teach early and often in classes on creating successful couple and marriage relationships.
No couple is immune to the possibility of separation or divorce.
My young students at different universities sometimes roll their eyes and squeeze the hand of their boyfriend or girlfriend tighter when I teach this concept.
No couple is immune to the possibility of separation or divorce.
It is true. I wish it were not true. But it is true. So what can we do about it?
The Phenomenon of Marital Difficulty and Reconciliation
If you look at research on marriage and divorce, you will find many different models of marital “dissolution” – the ending of a marriage relationship. It’s a common area of research. It gives insight into the steps that take many couples slowly downhill from the peaks of marital happiness and growth to the dark valleys of marital difficulty and despair. Too often the suggestion when discussing the possibility of divorce is like this:
Option 1 – Grow apart as a couple, become estranged or hostile, and file for divorce – end up separated and eventually divorced.
Option 2 – Grow apart as a couple, become estranged or hostile, but decide to stick it out and live together in unhappiness and enduring misery for years and years.
Is there no Third Option? There is. In fact, there is a marriage education and support program called “The Third Option.” The Third Option is to reverse your course, repent and forgive, learn and grow, and re-create a healthy and stable marriage relationship despite difficulties or disagreements or stumbling blocks along the way.
I was fascinated several years ago by new findings in research that suggested this pattern was not only possible, but relatively more common than is discussed or understood. I have intense concerns about the high rate of divorce and marital difficulty in America today and around the world. The likelihood of divorce for an average married couple today is often suggested to be between 40 and 45 percent. You should know, however, that your likelihood as a couple may be much, much lower depending on other factors in your life, such as involvement in your religious faith, patterns of communication, age at marriage, and other variables. That’s a topic we’ll save for another day.
As I began getting into the research literature on marriage and divorce, seeking to understand where I might begin to study this topic in a way that could lead to better options for couples, I found some eye-opening findings in a few selected studies:
- A national sample of couples was studied and rated their marital satisfaction at two times that were five years apart. Those individuals who rated their marriage satisfaction as “unhappy” or “very unhappy” the first time almost did a U-turn by the second time – of those who stayed married (most of them did), 86% of them rated their same marriage as “happy” or “very happy” five years later. What happened?
- In the same national study, most spouses who rated their marriage satisfaction as “unhappy” had a spouse who rated the marriage as “happy” – 72% of them! So, it is most accurate to talk about persons who are unhappy with their marriage now – not always!.
- In a different national study of couples, 60% of couples who divorced rated almost the same as still married couples on levels of disagreement, violence in the relationship, feelings of strong love for each other, and going out regularly. On paper, they looked about exactly the same. So, why did these couples with average levels of happiness and interaction end up getting divorced?
- Other surveys of couples have found that between 50 and 60 percent of spouses reveal that at one time or another in the relationship they have seriously thought about or considered separation or divorce.
It is a relatively common experience to have doubts or difficulty at some point as a marriage partner!
What is the point I am trying to make?
- It is not uncommon, in fact it is relatively common, for one or both spouses in a couple relationship to think about or discuss separation or divorce at some point but remain together in the marriage relationship.
- Most couples who actually do divorce do not have differences or difficulties that are hugely different from other married couples that have challenges but remain together.
- It is not uncommon for couples to go through periods of difficulty in marriage but then to “reconcile” and move toward stability in the marriage relationship.
This is the Phenomenon of Marital Difficulty and Reconciliation. You may have experienced it. But we don’t know a lot about your experience. If any of this sounds familiar, then you may have joined an interesting kind of Club.
Welcome to the Club! The problem is that nobody knows you are a member of the Club because you don’t tell anyone, and you don’t know who has been a member of the Club since they generally don’t tell anyone either. There are probably some really good reasons for that. It just leaves you too often feeling one thing. You think that you are the only member of the Club! And that leaves you feeling alone, stressed, inadequate, guilty, frustrated, wondering, and scared, because it seems so unlikely that anyone else is a member of this club.
I wonder how many other individuals are like the woman I met on the bus, who at one point have faced marital challenges, but remarkably, have faced them down and moved ahead and created a stable and positive and fulfilling marriage relationship. They have wisdom and insight to share. But almost no one has talked to them or listened to them and what they have to share and help us learn about marriage – and making it work in spite of difficulties. We need that wisdom.
An Invitation to Participate
A few months ago, I began a new project – the Putting a Marriage Back Together Study. It is meant to help illuminate the experiences and insights of couples who have been through the process of marital reconciliation. We are interviewing couples in stable marriage relationships who at one point have experienced the threat of separation or divorce, meaning it was discussed or considered at one point in time in the past by one or both marriage partners.
We want to learn from their experiences in overcoming challenges individually and together. We want to learn from the turning points in their lives and relationships. We want to learn about the resources and sources of support that were helpful or meaningful. We want to learn about what saves marriages and not just about what makes them end.
All information that we collect is confidential and participation is voluntary. So, if you have experience and insight that you are willing to share and would like to participate, please contact me for further information. Or, please share this invitation with others you might know who could participate.
We are currently interviewing in two primary areas:
- The upper Midwest (Dakotas, Minnesota, etc.)
- The Utah-Idaho region (Wasatch Front, southern Idaho, etc.)
These areas will expand as more couples express interest in sharing their ideas and participating in the study. You can contact me to ask questions, get further information, or express interest at: Sean Brotherson, sb******@nd*****.edu“>sb******@nd*****.edu (email).
Someone asked me the other day how this study is going. He thought it was a good idea and wanted to know why people might be willing to share. I told him about one couple I interviewed and I asked them the same question.
They looked at each other and then at me and she said, “Because we are a success, and we want to help other couples who have struggled to be a success.” I can agree with that. Putting a marriage back together is a better story than tearing one apart. I hope to hear some of those stories.
(You can share any comments or feedback with Sean Brotherson at br********@me**************.com“>br********@me**************.com – look forward to hearing from you!).