SALT LAKE CITY — That marriage will at times be a struggle is as inevitable as tax time and utility bills. And some couples will call it quits.
But discouraging divorce rates hide a more hopeful truth, according to a new study: Half of marriages last a lifetime and couples who stick together and tackle their challenges are very likely to be happy long-term, their relationship quality undiminished by time or turmoil.
Long-term marriages often even improve.
“When you look at trajectories of marital quality over time, what becomes apparent is that marriages that are resilient, that endure through difficulties, eventually most of them come out happy," says Spencer L. James, assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and the study's co-author with sociologist Paul Amato. "While it’s not guaranteed that marital difficulties and working through them will result in a good, stable, happy marriage, it is quite common and suggests that if people are willing to do that, it’s likely good things are down the road for them.”
Worth fighting for
The peer-reviewed research is published in the book "Social Networks and the Life Course." Amato and James used six “waves” of data from the longitudinal study, "Marital Instability Over the Life Course," and assessed relationship quality on the basis of “marital happiness, shared activities and discord.” The subjects were considered in two groups: Those who divorced and those who stayed together.
Not surprisingly, James said, couples typically reported declining happiness in the first 20 years of marriage. He notes that on average, years 2 through 5 or 7 and 8 have the highest probability of divorce.
After that, “there’s no couple that doesn’t go into a phase of being somewhat disillusioned. Men stop being as romantic, nobody is trying as hard, they’re not on their best behavior” like they were when courting. Things get a little boring and couples “start to see flaws."
The research didn’t untangle which marital issues can be overcome, but it provides hints, James says.
“Domestic violence should never be tolerated; it’s never OK under any circumstance. Spousal rape is never OK,” he notes. “That’s not what we’re talking about here and we are not advocating for people to stay in bad marriages and abusive relationships. Research has shown it’s worse for the kids to stay in an abusive marriage than to divorce.”
The researchers are talking, he says, about sticking around through “surmountable” problems. James believes those includes challenges like addiction, parenting disagreements, different ideas about how to interact with in-laws and extended family, work-family balance issues and various personal and behavioral failings.
And despite the fact that so-called “gray divorce” among older couples has increased over time, James says couples who make it to 20 years or so together are far more likely to stay married.
“Overall, and contrary to some prior studies, our results suggest that marriages that remain together show little evidence of deterioration in relationship quality over the marital life course,” James says.
How the couple treats each other, despite their challenges, really matters.
“Generally, if couples respect each other, it’s going to lead to a higher likelihood” of resilience, says Rodman. “That is, if they can see it as the spouse is doing something I don’t like, not (he or she) has become something I don’t like. When people feel contempt and don’t respect each other, it’s much harder to bounce back."
Discord in marriage is pretty universal, if sporadic. When the Deseret News asked couples interviewed for this story if they ever argued or thought about splitting up, 100 percent of those questioned responded with some version of “Duh.”
Couples disagree and passions wane for individualized reasons. Coping mechanisms and strategies vary, too. But couples who fought their way through problems were asked to describe their marriages today and they gave them high marks:
• Peg and Nick Theobald, both 30, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, married just out of college and were great together until her two pregnancies, when she suffered constant nausea, followed by what she’s pretty sure now was postpartum depression. After both births, she felt angry, upset, sad and overwhelmed. After the birth of her first son, she thought, “I can’t stand Nick.” She said it out loud.
Both deeply religious, they didn’t believe divorce was a good solution. But their lives had been pretty idyllic to that point, she says now, and they didn’t have a lot of resilience. The first step was acknowledging how bad they both felt in their marriage.
They’ve since worked on developing better communication strategies and figuring out how to manage conflict and expectations. They sought wise counsel — therapy, mentoring from a stable older couple and a marriage retreat — and they pray together daily.
Now eight years into their marriage, “We have a solid friendship in our marriage and really good respect for each other,” she says. “We both think the other person is pretty awesome.”
• Steven and Rhyll Croshaw, 66 and 65, respectively, have passed the 45-year mark on their marriage — and it hasn’t been easy. He has long battled a sexual addiction, including pornography.
The Mapleton, Utah, couple were married 13 years when he confessed he’d been visiting strip clubs and prostitutes. “It was forgive, repent, move on,” she says.
But it wasn’t over.
A decade later, he confessed again and they went into therapy. He started attending 12-step meetings, but didn’t like it. They kept it mostly private, and she was committed to helping him get help. Although she considered his addiction a real illness, she was mad. Still, they worked through things and rebuilt again.
Then, in 2005, he was arrested for picking up a prostitute. An attorney said he could avoid prosecution if he didn’t admit guilt. He didn’t. But he “felt incredible shame, completely lost and alone and afraid.”
In the middle of all that, he had a spiritual experience that reaffirmed his faith and helped him. He and Rhyll went to their LDS bishop, where he confessed and started the church’s repentance process. They talked to their children — they have seven — about what was going on. And he “started on a pathway of recovery with complete honesty and commitment to do the work.”
For a while, she was skeptical, but she made the daily choice to commit to their marriage and now describes it as strong, built on a “foundation of trust.” They now run a nonprofit called S.A. Lifeline to help others with sexual and pornography addiction.
• Samantha “Sam” and Patrick "Paddy" Cullinane, 44 and 51, respectively, just celebrated their 22nd anniversary, though at one point they thought they’d divorced.
Some years ago, they resettled in Salt Lake City to be close to her aging grandparents, and she launched a "big corporate career" with a ton of travel. He’d left a job he loved and was setting out as an entrepreneur, which meant she made the money. She’d be gone for days or weeks at a time, then return home exhausted, longing to recharge while he longed for her attention. They weren’t connecting.
They separated and she took a job in Spain. They signed divorce paperwork. But they knew their kids needed both of them and the couple worked at visitations and being amiable. Meanwhile, each did some deep thinking about their own roles in the breakup.
She says now that she expected him to make her happy and blamed him when she wasn’t. “When I didn’t live with Pat and I wasn’t happy, it wasn’t Pat’s fault. Turned out I had to make my own happiness,” she says. And he decided being jealous didn’t benefit him or his relationships.
When they agreed their work couldn't be a priority over family, it was a turning point. They decided they wanted to work on things as a couple. Less than a year apart, they wanted to be together. When they told the lawyer they wanted to remarry, he laughed. They thought they’d told him to file the paperwork. He was waiting to hear from them and never filed it.
More than a decade later, “our marriage is pretty awesome,” she says. They built a business together, taking advantage of the fact their strengths and weaknesses are opposite. They’ve co-written a book,“Bigger Love: How to have the love of your life for the rest of your life.”
• Ben Bryant, 82, and Elizabeth Hepburn, 80, of New York City, are entertainers who fell in love while doing musical theater. But 29 years into their marriage, amid financial difficulties and emotional disconnects, she was miserable. “I couldn’t hear my own heart,” which interfered with her work as a writer and singer. He wasn’t happy either, but didn’t want a divorce.
She moved in with a friend and started working on her own issues. “Emotionally crushed,” he went into therapy. “I felt if the person who knows me better than anyone else in the world doesn’t want to be with me, I must be terrible.” In therapy, he rebuilt his self-esteem and his life, but remained determined to get her back.
For them, the disaster of 9/11 was a turning point. New Yorkers instinctively reached for loved ones — and she reached for him. Tentatively, they started rebuilding. Eventually she moved back in. They had divorced, so they remarried. Could they have ridden it out? Maybe. Are they happily married? Yes.
“What we’ve got here now, Ben and me, we never get into a crappy place where we’re mad at each other for even half a day. If something comes up, we talk it through and it blows over. Love and gratitude are my words,” says Hepburn.
Overcoming a hard problem in a marriage can be a unifying factor for couples, says Rodman. “It doesn’t have to be just a marital rough patch. It could have been infertility or the death of a parent or a child who was very ill. People like the idea of being a couple that could get through something like that. They like the story itself and it’s less likely they will break up in the future.”
The advice experts and couples in enduring marriages offer is broad.
"When a couple feels their marriage is in trouble, they should find a marriage counselor right away. Most couples wait too long," says Wyatt Fisher, a psychologist in Boulder, Colorado, and author of the marriage book “Total Marriage Refresh.” "It's also recommended to start reading a book on healthy marriages as well as opening up about your marital problems to trusted friends to get their feedback."
With commitment, "a strength to struggle through the tough times with an eye to future possibilities," couples can endure, says Alan J. Hawkins, associate director of the School of Family Life at BYU. Deep respect for the institution of marriage makes it more likely, as does "a strong sense of 'we-ness.'" Other tools are effective communication skills, forgiveness of things big and little and maturity, he adds.
Engage in deep topics, like you did when you got married, says Rodman, who adds that doing new things keeps interest high. Individuals grow and change over time, so “keep an open feeling of curiosity about each other.”
“Couples take each other for granted,” says Hepburn. “Don’t. Remember how important they are and what they do for you.”
Peg Theobald warns couples to remember marriage is no fairy tale. “Two imperfect people trying to spend their entire adult lives together is bound to cause some pain and agony, but hitting hard times is not a good reason to call it quits.”
The Theobalds got back on track by prioritizing the relationship and using available tools, including date nights and romance. They talk honestly with each other and with their mentors, to whom they can say anything.
“And we remember we love each other. We don’t hate each other,” Peg Theobald says.
Therapy from someone who is skilled with trauma was essential for the Croshaws. So was including their children in their recovery.
Husband and wife “check in” every night, reading scripture and working through their emotions. “A marriage requires complete honesty,” Steven Croshaw says. “It takes a lot of commitment and time.”
"I recommend couples start learning more about how relationships 'are supposed to be' and that every relationship has stages," says Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin of The Marriage Restoration Project. Power struggles are a natural part of relationship design that leads to a "conscious marriage" — and "an opportunity to transform the conflict into an opportunity for growth and healing as opposed to viewing it as a reason to call it quits."
He, too, recommends marriage retreats. And application of a "90/10" rule, which acknowledges 10 percent of what bothers a couple is the actual behavior of a spouse and 90 percent is the emotional memory it evokes.
"I have seen, both in my marriage and in my couples' counseling practice, that couples who stick it out are happier in the future," he says.