Why marriages last

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


The reports of the individuals and couples who participated in the studies discussed in this paper are reflected in the characteristics and processes that are the focus of the two theories of marital breakdown presented at the start of the paper. Karney and Bradbury's theory sets out how the behaviours and attributes each person brings to the marriage via their family-of-origin and life experiences, the crises encountered by couples and the couple's style of interaction are interrelated, and how they impact on satisfaction with the marriage and ultimately its outcome. Gottman's cascade theory and the 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse' clearly demonstrate the power of verbal and nonverbal behaviour, particularly in conflict situations, to shape the experience of marriage. Both theories demonstrate how a marriage can move towards dissolution. When members of couples whose marriages have remained intact and satisfying for long periods talk about their marriage they too refer to their own and their spouse's personal characteristics and attributes in the context of the family and the social environment in which they were raised, and how as a couple they have dealt with the everyday hassles and unusual stressors encountered throughout the marriage.

The data generated by these predominantly qualitative studies of long-married couples provide two ways of conceptualising lasting marriages: as being defined by a set of characteristics or attributes of couples and their marriage, and as a number of processes in which couples engage throughout the life of the relationship.

In addition to the basic elements of love, trust and respect, characteristics common to lasting marriages include: commitment to the spouse and the relationship; willingness to adapt, change and compromise; sharing, friendship and liking; containment and resolution of conflict; mutuality, reciprocity and fairness; having children, and physical and psychological intimacy.

Bearing in mind that Wallerstein's sample was quite small, that four types of marriage were identified among Wallerstein's participants suggests that there is no single way to create a happy and lasting marriage. There is an illusion of simplicity in being able to distil from a multitude of data a set of characteristics by which long lasting, happy marriages can be described. Indeed, although lasting and happy marriages often appear to be uncomplicated and comfortable, most long-married happy couples would likely attest to the effort involved in creating and sustaining their marriage over such long periods.

If marriage is viewed in terms of a number of processes, such as those put forward by Wallerstein, a more dynamic picture is painted in which couples continually monitor and adjust their behaviour in order to maintain a balance between the core of the marriage - the couple relationship - and the various other roles each spouse fulfils: parent/grandparent, son/daughter, employee/employer, colleague, friend, neighbour, student, volunteer, club member, citizen. Some of these processes are most necessary at the beginning of the marriage (forging a couple identity separate from the families of origin for example), although there may be times when boundaries need to be re-defined as other aspects of the marriage and wider family context change (such as when spouses become parents). Other processes such as coping with crises, exploring sexual love and intimacy, sharing laughter and keeping interests alive, and emotional nurturance, require consistent attention.

Given the somewhat small and biased nature of some of the samples in the studies cited above, future exploration of marital characteristics and processes with sizeable numbers of couples from lower socioeconomic strata is clearly warranted.

Long and satisfying marriages are often more complex than those that might be called 'survivor marriages' in which spouses are resigned to staying together (Klagsbrun 1985). Couples in enduring marriages report the same sorts of troubles and difficulties as other couples and point out aspects of their own marriages that are less than ideal (Sharlin et al. 2000). In a broad sense, the distinguishing feature of these relationships is the sense and primacy of 'coupleness': that both spouses are committed to nurturing and sustaining the marriage, and both have the goodwill necessary to learn and engage in the behaviours that keep alive the emotional connection that brought them together in the first place.