Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Low Conflict Marriages #2: So What’s Wrong?

Here’s a statistic from Dr. Paul Amato, sociologist at Penn State University, that I find staggering:  Around 55-60 percent of divorces occur in low-conflict marriages, where hollering is at a minimum, and arguments might even be quite rare.

Dr. Amato calls these marriages “good enough” marriages, with the distinct implication that these relationships could be salvaged. So why DO people in low-conflict marriages divorce? What unique problems do they face that make their marriages seem untenable to them any more?

There are, of course, a multiplicity of reasons that people leave, despite Amato’s believe that their marriages could be saved. One interesting piece of research that could address the issue deals with relationships and self-building–and, of course, my son. Briefly, Eli (that’s Dr. Finkel, in case I haven’t mentioned it enough) worked with his thesis advisor, Caryl Rusbolt, on an international review of papers on  the Michelangelo phenomenon.

Michelangelo said, famously, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” So social psychologists took that and ran with it. A strong partner will see our ideal selves in the raw material that is our current presentation, and, by that partner’s reaction to what s/he sees inside, encourage us to believe in and create that reality of our own best selves.

And here’s perhaps where low-conflict marriages may grind to a screeching halt. The Michelangelo phenomenon is not about supporting your partner, or treating them well. As my son would say [well, did say for his interview with Northwestern University’s NewsCenter],”Even if partners treat us in perfectly loving, supportive ways, if the treatment is not consistent with the person we dream of becoming, we have to pay attention to those red flags,” Finkel warned. “Is that the person you want to be married to 10 years down the road?”

It assuredly doesn’t answer all questions, but I posit it as one theory to why we have so many low-conflict divorces. I have other ones, as well–but this seemed to fit nicely here, be up on current research, and talk about Eli, so I couldn’t resist.

Well, with that out of my system, let’s ask a  final question of those in low-conflict marriages.  Even if they aren’t being properly sculpted by their partner to be ‘all that they can be,’ are they right to divorce, given the hardships they–and their children–will face as divorced entities? I can’t answer the question for any given individual, but I would like to address certain patterns of marriages, and whether it helps to leave, in later posts.

But let’s return for a moment, in the next post, to Maura–and her son’s response to the news of her impending divorce.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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