Why marriages last

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

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Imparting the 'wisdom'

In turning to long-married couples for guidance there is an assumption that it is possible to identify the characteristics and attributes that have allowed them to navigate successfully the various difficulties all couples will experience in the course of their marriage (Kaslow and Robison 1996). There is also an expectation that their 'wisdom' can be transferred in some way to the current generation of married and marrying couples, and that young couples will be open to receiving it.

Older couples expressed concern about the difficulties young couples experience in forming committed and enduring relationships (Parker 2000) and pass on their experiences in the hope of being able to help young couples build strong relationships. Given that the current cohort of young married couples is experiencing a very different social and cultural milieu compared with that in which long-married couples began their married lives, one might question whether the task of transferring the 'wisdom' of those who have created and maintained lasting marriages across generations will be straightforward. However, one could hardly question the need to try.

Helping young couples prepare for marriage is the focus of a large number of educative programs conducted by a wide range of providers. Approximately 30 per cent of couples marrying for the first time attend some form of marriage preparation program (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs 1998). These programs are a proactive mechanism by which opportunities are created for couples to discuss relationship issues and to learn or improve their ability to communicate and resolve conflict effectively. Offering various levels of information, awareness raising and skills training, programs aim to promote couple resilience through the acquisition of relationship knowledge (Pattenden, cited in Bradley 2002).

However, spouses in the studies cited in this paper also commented on the need to help existing marriages, not only for their own sake but because of the need for young people to see how marriages can work. The high rate of marital breakdown since the introduction of no-fault divorce legislation in Australia in 1975 means that young couples are often trying to establish their own marriage without the benefit of observing a rewarding and enduring marriage at close range. Programs that aim to support existing marriages and relationships are less commonly attended, partly due to an 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' attitude, a belief that to some extent reflects the assumption that a wedding is all that is required to create a marriage. It is clear from the research cited in this paper that a rewarding and lasting marriage requires ongoing and intentional maintenance.

It is likely that a lack of general awareness of the existence and availability of post-wedding programs also contributes to their lower profile compared to marriage and relationship preparation programs. Conducted at certain stages after the wedding, these are designed to support marriages and relationships that are still intact, and prevent problems from arising or getting out of hand. Given that post-wedding programs are aimed at couples who have experienced being married and can be targeted at critical points (such as the birth of the first child), they are uniquely placed to have immediate impact on the couple's relationship. They can be directed towards existing relational issues and dynamics rather than those that, before the wedding, may not be anticipated or may be discounted by the couple as unlikely to happen to them.

Providing opportunities to strengthen marriages such as those afforded couples via these programs makes intuitive sense. However, the difficulty with educative programs is the lack of research aimed at demonstrating their effectiveness in producing measurable improvements in the relationships of attending couples. While feedback from couples participating in both pre- and post-wedding programs is invariably positive, there is little objective data on which to base conclusions about the effectiveness of programs, or lack thereof. Establishing whether prevention and support programs can help to create and maintain healthy marriages is clearly an important area of future relationships research. If such programs are shown to be valuable, and attendance became widely accepted as a normal part of being in an ongoing committed relationship, benefits would accrue not only to those couples who attend but also to their children's future relationships. As a Marital Perspectives Study participant noted, 'leading by example is the best way'.