Choice is bad for marriage

By Jay Dee, Contributing Writer

Dan Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, has been studying happiness for a while.  He ran a study a while ago on the photography class.

Students were given the choice of one photograph to have blown up and they could keep.  Half of the group was told they could exchange it within a certain time period if they liked.  The other group was told that once you make a selection, you were stuck with it.  Turns out that the students who able to change their mind ended up happier with their choice than the students who were given the option to exchange it (regardless of whether or not they decided to exchange it).

When choice is bad for marriage

Image courtesy of [David Castillo Dominici] /

When I learned of this study, I wondered: is there a correlation in marriage?  I think there is.

Growing up, I knew of only one or two marriages that ended in divorce in my sphere of relationships.  It was an extremely rare event in the Christian community I grew up in.  And those divorces that did happen were shocking, even years, decades later to find out that this person had been divorced.  One of the divorces that I knew about growing up was a pastor who had gotten divorced years before I had met him.  His son and I were in the same glass in elementary school.  When I found out, I didn’t know what to think.  Were pastors allowed to get divorced?  I thought Christians didn’t do that.  Everything in my upbringing told me that marriage was for life, there were no excuses, no ways out.  Sure, I knew of divorce, but that really wasn’t an option in my mind.

So, later on, when I got married, again, divorce wasn’t an option, and my wife grew up in the same sort of community with the same values.  When we said our vows, we meant for life.  No get out of jail free cards, no back door escapes, divorce was not an option.  What proceeded from that point on was a very rocky marriage for nearly a decade.  We fought, we argued, we ignored each other, we were selfish, we each had our own sexual sins to get over.  It took us each a long time to sort things out and figure out how to be a spouse, all the time growing closer to God.

After we had sorted our marriage out, fixed our bad habits and started fresh with what seemed like a new marriage, my wife asked me once if I ever thought of leaving.  I hadn’t.  Why not?  It was certainly bad enough at some points.  I’m sure it was for her as well.  But divorce wasn’t an option, and because it wasn’t an option, we were forced to make the best out of what we had.  Even in the lowest parts of our marriage, I loved her and wanted to be with her for the rest of our lives.

It was like the study.  I had made my choice, and now I was stuck with it, like it or not, for the rest of my life.  This does a few things:

1) You have to be very selective in choosing your spouse.

You won’t get another one, so pick well.  While our marriage started off bad, I still think I picked well, because one of my criteria was someone who wanted to follow God, to have that as a goal in her life.  Everything else, I think, will fall in place if you both have the same goal.  When you both follow God, you can’t help but grow as a person, and have your marriage grow as a result.

2) You have to make the best of what you have.

When leaving isn’t an option, you are forced to fix the problems.  You can’t just throw it out and start over with someone else.  So, we worked on our communication, we worked on our finances, we worked out our sex life, we worked on our health, we worked on all the pieces of our life we were unsatisfied with.  Because, after all, we only get this one.  We better make it the best one we can.

We’re still working on things, but we’ve come a long way.  Your brain also plays a trick on you.  When you have no choices, your brain will make you think that the path you are on is better than it is.  Dan Gilbert called this synthetic happiness, and I guess it is.  We create this happiness as a way to cope.  But guess what, you don’t know it’s synthetic, it feels like regular happiness, so it doesn’t really matter that it’s produced.

3) You don’t see other opportunities.

There was another study, which I can’t find now, that found that students in relationships tend to rate members of the opposite sex as less attractive than those who are single.  When you have no choice, your world starts to get filtered.  Your brain starts ignoring things that aren’t options.  You don’t see attractive people as a valid distraction or opportunity, in fact, you may not notice them at all.  And when you don’t notice them, or you don’t notice their attention, you don’t think about the grass being greener on the other side.  You only think about maintaining your own lawn.

4) You become more intentional.

A few years ago, I spent a lot of time trying to learn about investing.  I tried a lot of different investment streams with small amounts of money, or with play money, just to learn how they worked.  Let me tell you, there is a huge difference between investing with play money, or with a small amount of money versus investing your retirement savings.  When you aren’t really invested in it, you make stupid choices, you make quick decisions, you do things just to try them out.  You don’t really care much about the outcome, because, well, you can just get a do-over, you can reset the account, or throw in another $100.

But when you are playing with your life savings…well, that’s a different ball game.  You spend hours, days, weeks researching.  You make small changes and see how they will play out.  You are focused on your actions and their outcomes until you are sure it is healthy and wise move, and then you do it again with the next one.  Marriage without divorce is like this.  You don’t get to try again, so you become intentional in your actions.  You have a goal in mind, and you constantly take small steps to get there.

I thank God that we didn’t see divorce as an option.  If we did, I’m not sure we would have made it, and we would have missed out on the amazing marriage we have now.  It more than makes up for the years of difficulty we went through, and this new marriage is just getting started.  It feels a bit like we are newly weds, since we didn’t feel much like newly weds when we got married.

Your Turn

What are your views on divorce?  What are your spouses?  Have you both decided that divorce is not an option?


  1. “… when I got married, again …”
    Were you and your first wife Christian the first time?
    I’m very interested in your answer because you are writing a article much like so many others do speaking on second/third/fourth marriages, they are Christians, and some spouses are still alive.

  2. My apologies, that may have been unclear. I have only been married once.
    I was reiterating the concept that divorce was not an option, not that I had been married previously.

  3. anonymousMe says:

    I don’t believe divorce is an option for me, as a Christian husband, but my wife, as a Christian, feels differently. She says that divorce is ‘just a reality’ and ‘she lives in reality’. She had an affair a couple of years ago, and we came very close to divorcing. Now, when I tell her that in order for us to move forward with our marriage, we need to take the word divorce off the table and out of our vocabulary, she tells me that I am not being ‘real’. I don’t know how to take it. To me it seems like she still feels like she has the option to leave the marriage if she finds she is not happy or “feeling fulfilled”. I have told her this, but she either shrugs it off or changes the subject.

  4. Thank you for clarifying that (:
    very important to change that on the article.
    Bless you Jay Dee (:

  5. A.M. Add God to your picture and vocabulary.
    Your wife is going to say a lot of things, hurtful things. Turn to God in this time and He will direct you to His word so that you find strength and affirmation that as you say/HE says, Divorce should not be in the vocabulary, God should be there.
    We women are so contentious. I share this with you from experience in how I failed my husband and we did end up divorcing not because I chose but because he was led astray.
    I am standing for our marriage now because God willed it. I was an Atheist 4 years ago, I walked out on my husband and told him it was over six months later. A few weeks after that God saved my life, a Damascus Road life I had.
    We were not divorced when God saved me but my husband being attacked by the devil and being led astray filed the papers. I do not blame him for anything because i really didn’t take any responsibility for anything I did in our marriage. God just continues to soften my heart for him and even now, four years later, I miss him just as much and love him more.
    I feel blessed now that God saved me, that I am able to stand for my marriage, for marriage and tell people God really does hate divorce and you need to go read His word before you make a big mistake. Respect His word. Own it because He really does hate it.

    Pray for her. Pray for God to touch her heart. Only you and God know her and so pray for what you see she needs and pray for you as well. That God fix whatever is in your heart that needs to be changed. It takes two to mess it up, we too have to look to ourselves and are accountable to God to change. Because He’s asking us to trust Him. You too need to change look to God to change you.
    If you are spending too much time in the worldly ways then you need to step back, and spend time in the desert to get your foundation right and strong as her husband. God expects us to work on this. Every day its work but its worth it.

    Trust Him. God be with you AM, God give you wisdom, and to show you the things you need to see so that things start to get better for your marriage.

  6. I don’t believe divorce is an option. Because when it is, then it is – in other words, if its an option, and things are really rough, then it may just be an option worth exercising. So, I agree – take it off the table, out of your vocab and know that you are exactly where you are meant to be, and with who you are meant to be because God is so much greater and more powerful than we can ever imagine…

  7. We are in it for the long haul and I like it! It isn’t that we are against divorce(I believe some divorce is necessary) but we believe we have a covenant made in front of God and family and in our time together here we want to honor that.

  8. I was married one time and my husband had an affair. He then became abusive and wanted to divorce. All this time I sought God’s will and was against divorce. I believe if my husband would have been willing to seek God to change his heart and ways we could still be married. The divorce happened against my will. It took a long time for me to accept that I am not second hand because I have been divorced and there are times when divorce is unavoidable. I thank the Lord for forgiveness and second chances. I also know that marriage is meant to last a lifetime and for me divorce is not in my vocabulary

  9. Thanks for sharing that Jana.
    Yes, if the partner leaves, that’s not really a choice, is it? I’m glad you still believe divorce is not an option, even after having been forced to go through one.

  10. I’m curious what kind of divorce you feel is necessary?

  11. Exactly!

  12. I believe divorce is not an option, but i am curious to know; what if one partner is abusive to the point that it threatens the other’s life? Rather than stay and maybe loose ur life, isn’t separation/divorce better. What is the point in sticking a marriage that causes u to loose ur very life.

  13. Divorce is quite different than separation. Separation should take place, if it is needed, but with the hope of reconciliation. Divorce is never taken in the hopes of reconciliation.

    So, in the case of abuse, yes, I agree, separation is a must. I think calling the police is a must. Discipline can and should be done with compassion and love…but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. But again, always with the hope of redemption and reconciliation (even though it may not occur).