The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Riskier than Ever

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

No-fault divorce continues to be looked upon as a necessary escape valve for troubled marriages. Yet a study by Paul Amato of Penn State University that explores differences between divorcing couples suggests that rather than just facilitating an easy exit for high-conflict unions, the modern cavalier attitude toward divorce has also made the average marriage riskier than ever.

Using a sample of 4,460 married couples from the National Survey of Families and Households, Amato conducted a cluster analysis of 509 couples that had divorced between Wave 1 (1987–88) and Wave 2 (1992–94). After clustering 267 of these divorcing couples (52 percent) into a “low-distress” marriage group and the remaining 242 into a “high-distress” group, he discovered that there were remarkably few differences that distinguished one group from the other, relative to their peers that had not divorced. Both sets of divorcées, for example, were more likely to presume, when they were married, that life after divorce would be more satisfying, relative to their peers that had remained married.

Yet reality hit hard when both men and women from the low-distress group learned that divorce did not deliver what they had anticipated. When married, men and women from this group reported similar levels of happiness as did their peers who remain continuously married. But the low-conflict group reported significant decreases in happiness after divorce (p<.001 for men and for women). In contrast, those from high-conflict marriages reported significant increases in post-divorce happiness, although the level still remained below the happiness of men and women that had stayed married.

Among the similarities between the two groups of divorcées, Amato found that both sets were more likely to have cohabited before marriage (with spouse or with someone else), to have grown up with divorced parents, to have had dual incomes when married, and to have stepchildren. They were also less likely to have had a church wedding, to have attended church together, and to hold conservative family values. Both sets also had experienced high levels of adultery when married: 73 percent of the high-conflict group and 72 percent of low-conflict group reported extramarital affairs.

Even with these similarities, Amato theorizes that in the low-distress group, which exhibited average levels of marital quality, “infidelity may be the factor that causes an otherwise stable marriage to unravel relatively quickly.” Yet he is quick to lament, “The greater social acceptance of divorce, combined with the greater ease of obtaining divorce, has increased the proportion of divorces that occur among couples with average (rather than low) levels of marital quality.”

(Paul R. Amato and Bryndl Hohmann-Marriott, “A Comparison of High- and Low-Distress Marriages that End in Divorce,”Journal of Marriage and Family 69 [August 2007]: 621–38.)