Features

Hanging together

National | Many married couples who work through their problems wind up glad they didn't divorce

Issue: "Walking the tightrope," Feb. 10, 2001

February 7, 1999: Just 36 hours, and their 10-year marriage would be history. Unable to forgive her husband Dan's serial adultery, Paige Wiersgalla had filed for divorce, then counted each one of the 120 days of Wisconsin's waiting period. But there was one nagging hurdle to leap as she waited to sign the paperwork that would sever the Wiersgallas' till-death-do-us-part promise: Mainly because it would look good in court, Paige had agreed to a second counseling session at the home of Larry Ballard, a regional director for Marriage Savers, a community-based divorce prevention program. Arriving in separate cars, the troubled couple posted themselves in opposite corners of the Ballards' living room, Paige bitter, with arms and legs crossed. "We were like two enemies in the same room," Dan remembered. At that moment, he dared not even dream of the happy marriage he and Paige share today. There's no way to estimate the number of couples who pull back from the brink of divorce. But recent research shows that couples who do stick it out through stormy seas often land on sunny marital shores-with more fair weather forecast for the future. Linda Waite, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, surveyed 3,500 couples whose marriages were in trouble. Of those who hung tough in marriages they rated as a "1" on a seven-point scale ("1" meaning very unhappy and "7" meaning very or quite happy), 86 percent rated those same marriages a "6" or "7" five years later. Ms. Waite last year published those findings in The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (Doubleday), a book co-authored by Maggie Gallagher, director of marriage programs at the Institute for Family Values. "Bad marriage is not fixed in fact," write Ms. Gallagher and Ms. Waite. "... It's how you recast it, and most unhappy couples who stay married get much, much happier." For 10 years the Wiersgallas' marriage was basically happy. Paige, 33, relished her role as homemaker caring for home, husband, and their four children. Dan, 35, worked in a family-owned plumbing and contracting company. But months spent at out-of-town job sites yielded temptations for Dan: nightclubs, parties, one cocktail too many, and, eventually, women. Noting the 1980s ethos of sexual promiscuity, Dan said his adultery may have been rooted in the way he was "taught to perceive the opposite sex, a lack of respect and caring for women, and a lack of a healthy fear of God." At bottom, though, he acknowledges it was his own "failure to say no" that started his two-year slide down the slippery slope of sexual infidelity. Still, guilt gnawed at him: "Finally I couldn't run from it anymore. Even though I knew it would be catastrophic, I had to release the burden." So Dan confessed. He and Paige struggled to overcome the pain, but couldn't. Waves of anger, pain, and resentment slammed the ship of their marriage into the rocks, while the mutual warmth and compassion that had bound the couple together for a decade seemed forever lost at sea. Like more than 2 million married Americans each year, the Wiersgallas decided to apply society's accepted remedy for a marriage seemingly beyond repair: divorce. But some marriage therapists say many divorcing couples leap prematurely from damaged, but still perfectly seaworthy-even latently promising-relationships. "When people get married, they're kind of at a high level of marital satisfaction; but as time goes on that bottoms out," said Glenn Lutjens, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Focus on the Family's counseling department. "Some say the marriage is going down hill, and they don't stick around until it rebounds." Instead they invoke the no-fault divorce laws available in all 50 states. Such laws first surfaced in California in 1969 when then-governor Ronald Reagan signed the first no-fault divorce legislation. Similar laws replicated across the country, at first masquerading as vaccinations against permanent unhappiness, but ultimately touching off a national divorce epidemic that would leave women and children in poverty, kids emotionally devastated, and the institution of marriage crippled, perhaps for good. Between 1960 and 1981, divorces skyrocketed from 393,000 to 1,213,000, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. By 1998, 19.4 million currently divorced people populated the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. Along the way, a myth took shape: Despite its ugly fallout, divorce was still a sensible way to effect a cease-fire in the million or so marriages per year that played out as fiery, full-scale ground wars. But several recent studies, including one by Pennsylvania State University sociologists Paul Amato and Alan Booth, authors of A Generation at Risk (1997, Harvard University Press), reveal a different picture: Less than a third of divorces, it turns out, result from marriages where abuse, neglect, or even high-octane fighting is the norm. Instead, more than 60 percent of marriages break apart because of creeping loneliness and boredom-or tiny, unvoiced resentments that coalesce into percolating volcanoes. Marriage experts say most such symptoms can be repaired and marriages restored, but couples often lose hope before getting the right kind of help. The Wiersgallas faced adultery, not one of those symptoms. Even so, looking back, Paige recognizes she helped nurse a total breakdown in communication. "There was selfishness on my part: My attitude was you do what you want to do, and I'll do what I want," she said. "When he came home I had done everything, so he didn't have to do anything. Basically he had no responsibility, and I believe that was the key." For Dan, the line had been crossed years before. "You're like Adam taking a bite of the apple, and the seeds are planted.... There wasn't anything along the path of adultery I didn't choose. I had become a slave to ... [sexual] cravings." Finally, Dan said he heard God deep in his heart and found it was impossible to outrun Him. "I couldn't understand what it was I was chasing, or running from." While Paige stoked her anger and hurt, Dan collapsed in the ashes of remorse, desperately seeking answers to what had triggered treason against the person he loved. Finally this non-churchgoer found himself sobbing in a pew, where he found the answer: "I just cried out for God to save us and He did." God offered help in the form of Larry and Violet Ballard. Mr. Ballard is Midwest Regional Director for Marriage Savers. Founded in 1986 by Michael and Harriet McManus, Marriage Savers helps communities form "Community Marriage Policies" (CMP) supported by local clergy and civic leaders. Clergy commit to support marriage in their churches, explained Mr. Ballard, while the civic leaders form task forces that seek to make local law and policy more marriage-friendly. "When churches take a stand together, that's news," Mr. McManus said. "That encourages those in troubled marriages to see that it can be done, and they tend to persevere, even if they don't participate in such a program." Community Marriage Policies show promising results. County clerks in 25 CMP communities report dramatic divorce declines. For example, in Modesto, Calif., which in 1986 became the first city to adopt a CMP, divorce declined by 30 percent over 11 years. In Eau Claire, Wis., there were 346 divorces in 1996. By 1999, 92 fewer marriages had dissolved. Nationally, divorce declined by just 1.3 percent during the same period. The Wiersgallas, who live in Eau Claire, contributed to those encouraging statistics. After their initial counseling session with the Ballards, each filled out a questionnaire dealing with multiple areas of their marriage. During the second meeting-the one just 36 hours before Paige was to sign the divorce papers-the couple discussed their responses with the Ballards. Meanwhile, Paige noticed that Dan seemed to be undergoing a profound attitude change. She also sensed God prompting her not to give up. She left the Ballards' house that evening still determined to finalize the divorce, but there was also something new: Paige began asking God what He wanted her to do. "Dan called saying God could overcome this," Paige said, "and it was like God was saying 'If you believe in Me, let Me do this for you.' His presence was so great, and I said I'm not going to sign. I'll go for a 30-day extension." As it turned out, 30 days has turned into more than two years. Paige never signed the divorce papers. Reconciled since early 1999, joy touches their voices when they say they "are a lot happier with a lot more peace." But that doesn't mean the process of getting here was a honeymoon. The Wiersgallas acknowledge that their children suffered "tragically" through the turbulent times. And the couple had to hack their way painfully through the jungle of resentments revealed during continued mentoring sessions with the Ballards. And what of Dan's betrayal? "I don't forget," Paige said. "But I chose to forgive."

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