Fortifying Words, Corrosive Numbers

What makes young people open to the idea of divorce? What makes them resistant to that idea? Psychologist Daniel R. Stalder of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater offers illuminating answers to these questions in a new study of how “cognitive dissonance” affects marital thinking.

“Cognitive dissonance,” Stalder explains, “is a psychological discom-fort created by an inconsistency or contradiction among one’s thoughts or behaviors that one is then motivated to reconcile.” Stalder expects to find such dissonance in a modern world in which, “despite the popular-ity of marriage and despite vows and desires of lifetime commitment, many marriages end in divorce, with serious consequences for marital partners and their children.”

To identify more precisely how such dissonance develops and how young people deal with that dissonance, Stalder analyzed how the thinking of 81 single undergraduate psychology students toward divorce reflects two very different influences: 1) reminders of the binding significance of “traditional (divorce-inconsistent) wedding vows”; 2) comparative statistical information about divorce rates in twenty-first-century America. Randomly selected students were exposed to one or both of these influences; then all responded to a 16-point survey about their attitudes toward divorce. Stalder’s subsequent analysis finds significantly “less acceptability” toward divorce among students who had been exposed to both influences than among students who were only exposed to the divorce statistics: that is, students who were reminded of the vows and exposed to “social-comparison (divorce-rate) information” were significantly more resistant to divorce than were students who were exposed to the divorce-rate statistics but had not been reminded about wedding vows (p < 0.05).

Since religious doctrine and ritual typically reinforce wedding vows and regularly remind worshippers of the weight of these vows, it is not surprising that Stalder also identifies students’ religiousness as an independent statistical predictor of resistance to divorce.

The persistent resistance to divorce among students reminded of the until-death-do-us-part significance of wedding vows is particularly striking since Stalder’s analysis establishes that students exposed to the divorce statistics were “more likely to trivialize the vows than those who did not receive such information.” Quite understandably, Stalder expresses concern that “this finding suggests a secondary risk from a high divorce rate—that young adults who are very aware of the divorce rate might take the wedding vows less seriously.”

Aware of the harmful social consequences of such trivialization of wedding vows, Stalder suggests that his findings might suggest “at least one straightforward application in premarital or marital counseling. If the goal is to avoid divorce, then couples can be given regular reminders of the wedding vows.”

Stalder admits that “such vow-reminder strategies to reduce divorce risk might seem to oversimplify the emotional complexities of divorce, particularly for a couple seriously considering divorce.” But he points out that “such reminder strategies bear strong similarities to successful dissonance-informed strategies in other emotionally complex domains, including conflict resolution in divorce mediation . . . and the treatment or prevention of some psychological disorders.”

This new study makes it very clear that pondering wedding vows can still do a great deal to fortify young people against divorce even when the media bombard them with disheartening divorce statistics.

(Daniel R. Stalder, “The Role of Dissonance, Social Comparison, and Marital Status in Thinking about Divorce,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 29.3 [May 2012]: 302–323.)