The Best-Kept Secret to Staying Married

This article was originally published at the Washington Examiner.

What if the secret to staying married is simply choosing to do so? That was the takeaway of an article about the 73rd wedding anniversary of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, who are now the longest-married presidential couple in history.

How did the Carters do it? By taking divorce off the table.

This mental thought process is much more powerful than it seems. For one thing, the decision to never get divorced leaves all the room in the world for the marriage to improve over time, which it typically does. One study by the Institute for American Values showed that “two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce reported being happily married five years later.” This was true even after controlling for race, age, gender, and income.

Another great reason to take divorce off the table is that it’s contagious. Research by sociologist James H. Fowler found that if a sibling divorces, we’re 22% more likely to get divorced ourselves. When our friends get divorced, it’s even more influential: People who had a divorced friend were 147% more likely to get divorced than people whose friends’s marriages were intact. That’s an astonishing number.

The problem with the mindset that you can always get divorced is that knowing you have an out directly affects the amount of effort you put into it.

“When a decision is final, we engage in a variety of psychological processes that enhance our feelings about the choice we made relative to the alternatives,” writes Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice.

This psychological process applies to any choice we make. Whether you’re deciding which car, television, or jeans to buy, or whether you’re deciding whether or not to stay married, make your decision as though you have no options. The significance of this attitude cannot be overstated.

It is true that divorce is sometimes necessary, particularly when a partner is in harm’s way, but we live in a culture that equates divorce with liberation, as though it were a “get out of jail free card.”

Ask any honest psychologist, and he or she will tell you that divorce is a temporary relief at best. More often than not, divorce creates more problems than it solves. Not only does divorce hurt children, as well as the relationship between parents and their children, but most people who get divorced go on to remarry and thus bring with them a whole new set of problems. That’s why the divorce rate for second marriages (that involve children) hovers around 70%.

Divorce, in other words, is no panacea. If you want to avoid it, remove it from your mind altogether. One survey of 1,000 married women showed 50% have a “backup husband,” or a man who serves as plan B in case their marriages fail. Talk about undermining your own marriage!

These women have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fantasizing about a marriage that doesn’t exist and preparing for the demise of your actual marriage will almost certainly lead to its death.

It’s your attitude that makes the difference. The way we handle conflict when we assume we’ll be together ‘‘til death do us part” is very different from the way we approach conflict when we assume we can always leave.

“The very option of being allowed to change our minds seems to increase the chances we will change our minds. When we can change our minds about decisions, we are less satisfied with them,” writes Schwartz.

That’s why mentally removing the option to divorce is a great strategy. In fact, it may be the best-kept secret to staying married.

Suzanne Venker

Suzanne is an author, columnist and relationship coach committed to helping women let go of cultural beliefs that undermine their happiness in life and in love.

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