Why marriages last

A discussion of the literature
Research Paper No. 28 – July 2004

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Marriage 1 was once part of the natural progression into adulthood, a means of achieving independence and an identity distinct from one's parents and kin. Most people married, even though it seems they often felt that they did not really know what they were getting into (Parker 2000).

More recently, marriage is often described as simply one of a number of lifestyle options, competing with advanced education, career achievement and less formal relationship structures (Mackay 1997). Census data (ABS 2000) show marriage is becoming less common, occurs later in the life course and is likely to follow a period of cohabitation. Until the recent past the stages in couple and family formation (entering first committed relationship, marriage, first child, ownership of first home) were marked by lengthy periods of adjustment. However, these events now occur in a compressed time frame where partnering, marriage and home ownership occur in quick succession, and home ownership often precedes both formal marriage and the birth of the first child (Winter and Stone 1999).

While there is grave concern among some social researchers worldwide that the institution of marriage is under threat, data on the marriage intentions of young Australians show that marriage at some stage in their life is desired or intended by the majority (McCabe and Cummins 1998). While the overall indications are that the majority of adults will form a committed long-term relationship, probably marriage, at some point in their lives, people are marrying and having their first child at a later age (ABS 2000). Greater financial and social independence for women, levels of participation in the labour force that have increased for women but declined for men, and the legacy of a generation experiencing their own and their peer's parental divorce, have all contributed to the observed declines in both marriage and fertility rates. In addition to the downward trends in marriage and fertility rates, the number of divorces taking place throughout most western countries is also of concern. Hundreds of studies have been undertaken to identify the factors that cause, predict, or contribute to dissatisfaction and instability in marriages and relationships. Early age at marriage, violence in the family of origin, and particular patterns of negative interaction and attribution are among the factors that are repeatedly shown to be important to marriage and relationship outcomes.

However, many marriages remain intact for very long periods. Gathering data on lasting marriages would ideally be conducted over the life of the relationship - collecting information during courtship and throughout the life of the marriage - but there are few such studies (Kelly and Conley 1987, for example). Researchers are turning to other methods of data collection to enhance their understanding of the keys to creating and sustaining lasting and rewarding relationships.

This paper aims to draw attention to the body of literature available on how enduring and rewarding marriages can be created and maintained.

1 Since the studies cited in this paper were primarily of married couples and the sampling procedures used in those studies constrain generalisability, the terms 'marriage' and 'spouse' tend to be used rather than the more general terms 'relationship' and 'partner', which includes de facto relationships.