By Vesna Barzut
For the majority of people, divorce represents one of the greatest personal defeats. Undoubtedly, divorce is a great source of stress not only for ex-spouses but also for others in their environment. Nevertheless, as a personal crisis, divorce can also result in personal growth and improvement of one’s quality of life.
The majority of scientific studies focus on the negative effects of divorce, for spouses and especially for their children. For sure, divorced people, as well as children from separated families, usually deal with additional, specific challenges not always experience by happily married couples or their children. However, it is important to make a clear distinction between a functional and dysfunctional marriage. While being happily married could have positive effects on psychological and physical health, remaining in a low-quality marriage can be associated with numerous negative effects.
Even though the rates of divorce, at least in Western countries, has significantly increased over the years, still there are people who remain in a marriage although they are not at all satisfied with it. Hawkins and Booth (2005) investigated the relationship between being unhappily married and psychological and physical well-being. People who remain unhappily married reported lower self-esteem and life-satisfaction and they were also—non-surprisingly—less happy, in general, compared with people in functional marriages. Furthermore, unhappily married people had poorer health and higher levels of psychological distress. Finally, unhappily married people who have been divorced reported the higher levels of life-satisfaction, higher self-esteem and better health compared with those remaining unhappily married.
Another study by Choi and Marks (2008) investigated the effects of marital conflicts on psychological and physical health and found that the presence of marital conflicts IS a significant risk factor for one`s health. The results showed that marital conflicts are associated with increases in depressive symptoms and functional impairment.
Previously mentioned studies clearly indicate that staying in a dysfunctional partnership can lead to poorer outcomes in both, mental as well as physical health. Why then, do people remain unhappily married? One of the most common reasons for staying in a dysfunctional marriage is the belief that it is the best option for the children. Nevertheless, some studies provide and suggest the opposite result.
Morrison and Coiro (1999) investigated whether children benefit when high-conflict marriages come to an end. They showed that children from divorced and separated families experienced a higher level of behavioral problems regardless of the level of conflict between parents. However, children who continue to live in high-conflict families showed an even greater level of behavioral problems. The result of this study emphasized that although divorce is associated with some negative effects, it seems even more dangerous to remain in a dysfunctional high-conflict marriage.
Another study by Riggio (2004) investigated the long-term effects of parental divorce and of living in families with parental conflict. This study provided some conflicting evidence that these two situations provide different outcomes in adulthood. Conflicts had an overall negative effect on parent-children relationships. Additionally, people who grow up in families with parental conflicts were more anxious in personal relationships and they reported having a less available or well developed social support. On the other hand, divorce resulted in poorer father-children relationships. Interestingly the relationship with the mother was closer and more satisfactory. Another difference is that children from divorced families became independent earlier and they did not show as much anxiety in personal relationships. Such a result is not surprising. For example, parents who are involved in continuous conflicts probably have less time and energy for their children and likely provide less effective parenting. Thus, children do not feel like they have emotional or mental support. Moreover, a parental dysfunctional relationship serves as a bad role model for a future relationship for the children. On the other hand, parental divorce had less severe negative effects. In many families, after divorce, children stay with mothers which could explain the more positive relationship with mothers. Because children are no longer constantly witness to constant parental conflicts, they are more protected from developing dysfunctional expectations and relationship behaviors.
To conclude, it is expected that a good marriage can positively affect both an individual’s mental and physical health. Families with parents who are happily married provide good role models for children and can provide greater support for their emotional well-being to better prepare them for future adult relationships. Oppositely, living in high-conflict partnerships will inevitably lead to lower self-esteem, depression, and lower life-satisfaction… Additionally, an unstable unhealthy marriage will indirectly affect parenting abilities resulting in less effective parenting strategies. When parents stay unhappily married, their children suffer the most. It has been shown that living in dysfunctional families has more negative long-term effects than parental divorce. Children need to feel safe and accepted, something that becomes difficult–if not impossible–in families with high parental conflict. Growing up in a dysfunctional family leads to the development of low self-esteem, poor communication skills, and an inability to ask for and/or provide social support, which puts these children at a higher risk for unsuccessful social relationships with others in their lives.
Thus, in a situation when a marriage is unstable and volatile and where problems are not solvable for the couple, the right and the best solution is…….divorce!
Vesna Barzut M.A., is a Ph.D. student in psychology and lives in Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia. VesnaBarzut@yahoo.com
Choi, H., & Marks, N. F. (2008). Marital conflict, depressive symptoms, and functional impairment. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70(2), 377-390.
Hawkins, D. N., & Booth, A. (2005). Unhappily ever after: Effects of long-term, low-quality marriages on well-being. Social Forces, 84(1), 451-471.
Morrison, D. R., & Coiro, M. J. (1999). Parental conflict and marital disruption: Do children benefit when high-conflict marriages are dissolved?. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 626-637.
Riggio, H. R. (2004). Parental marital conflict and divorce, parent‐child relationships, social support, and relationship anxiety in young adulthood.Personal Relationships, 11(1), 99-114.