I met a newlywed couple recently; I’ll call them Ted and Lindy. They were giddy after their honeymoon—young lovers with big dreams for life together. But within months of that romantic high, their daily routine (or lack thereof) and a mounting list of unresolved conflicts and unmet expectations began to take their toll. As it turns out, they’re reeling. They’re quickly becoming what Sacred Marriage author Gary Thomas calls “shell-shocked newlyweds.”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, so bogged down with difficulty and lacking the relational intimacy that came so easily while they were dating. They were stunned. And on the fast track to becoming a shocking statistic: one-third of all American marriages end in divorce before the fifth anniversary.
Why is that number so high? Couples in trouble tend to think there are only two options—get divorced or be miserable for the rest of their lives. Thankfully that’s a false choice. There’s a lesser known stat that shows a third option, one that is far better than those two: among married couples that were on the brink of divorce, those that stuck it out and stayed married were happier five years later, than those that went through with the divorce.
According to the American Values survey, “Does Divorce Make People Happy,” the most unhappy marriages reported the most dramatic turnarounds. Those couples who rated their marriages as very unhappy, eight out of ten who avoided divorce were happily married five years later.
As conditioned by culture as we are, we often think that when a marriage is down, the only course is to throw in the towel. But the people in this study show the opposite is true. Those who stick it out are happier than those who give up.
Is it possible to avoid getting to that very low spot? Often it is. Not every couple experiences it. But when it does hit, that shell-shocked feeling tends to come from our own unrealistic expectations of what marriage will be like. Instead of turning to Scripture for our cues about the sacrificial love and respect required when two fallen people vow to spend the rest of their lives together, whatever may come (Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 3:18-19, 1 Corinthians 7:28, James 3:2), we get sucked into thinking what we see on TV and film—the effortless fantasy—is reality.
This isn’t to say marriage is all hard work and disappointment. But it is a crucible God uses to make us more like Him. It’s a soul-shaping adventure that flourishes when both husband and wife lay down their lives for the other. As Jesus warned us, trouble is inevitable. Thankfully, divorce isn’t. Nor is a duct-taped relationship barely making it the best we can hope for. When divorce isn’t an option, couples live out their commitment differently. More intensely and intentionally. And it’s there, in the living out of marital vows, that fulfillment and happiness can be found.
Candice is the author of Get Married: What Women Can Do to Help It Happen, founder of Boundless.org, and editor-at-large of MarryWell.org. She and her husband Steve co-authored Start Your Family: Inspiration for Having Babies. They have four children.