Why marriages last

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

A framework for understanding why marriages last

Wallerstein and Blakeslee (1996) go beyond identifying the characteristics of lasting and happy marriages. From her observations of the happy couples in her study, Wallerstein has distilled a set of nine 'tasks' of marriage - psychological challenges that must be addressed within the marriage from its inception and updated throughout. These challenges offer a view of creating and sustaining a lasting and happy marriage as a process in which couples can engage, rather than a set of characteristics that define them.

While being able to identify such characteristics is very useful, without due attention to processes by which those characteristics are developed, they can tend to suggest that having a long and happy marriage is an either/or proposition - if the required characteristics are absent the marriage may be perceived as likely to fail. (However, the authors of the studies above would be quick to point out that marriages also succeed despite the perceived absence of one or more of the attributes they have identified.) The 'process' view also reinforces the notion that the marriage does not spring into being on the day of the wedding.

Task 1. Separating from the family of origin

This challenge requires developing an independent unit in which the primary relationship is with the spouse and the primary identity is as a husband or wife, not a son or daughter. Simultaneously redefining old boundaries and forging new ones is a difficult process, particularly at the outset of the marriage, and one that is likely to be re-visited at later stages of the marriage such as the birth of a child.

Task 2. Building togetherness and creating autonomy

The sense of 'we-ness' is the key to a strong marriage. It involves creating a common view of the marriage while at the same time allowing room for each spouse to retain some sense of autonomy - not in the sense of retaining the lifestyle of an individual before marriage but in allowing each spouse their sense of self as an individual within the sphere of the marriage. Couples in three of the studies outlined above (Klagsbrun 1985; Lauer and Lauer 1986; Parker 2000) made specific references to finding, maintaining and adjusting the balance between individual and couple. A recurrent theme in these and other studies is that the marriage is seen as almost a separate entity in and of itself, the needs of which take precedence over the spouses' individual needs and something for which compromises and sacrifices are worthwhile. However, if compromise and sacrifice are integral to achieving a balance between togetherness and autonomy, there must be a shared sense of fairness that allows each spouse some degree of gratification.

Task 3. Becoming parents

While parenthood was a defining element of marriage for many of the couples in all the studies described in this paper it may not be as salient for many young couples approaching marriage or newly married. Adding the new role of parent brings both positive and negative changes to the marital relationship. The challenge from this time forward is to balance the needs of the couple relationship with the needs of the child - both require nurturing. As participants in the Institute's Marital Perspectives Study noted, this is increasingly difficult in the current environment where working long hours is required to advance one's career or simply to put food on the table. In realising that each role feeds the other, couples in Wallerstein's study told how they managed to take time out from parenting to nourish the partner relationship, which they knew would, in turn, nourish the parent-child relationship. Awareness of the potential harm in neglecting the couple relationship, not only to the couple but to their children's views of marriage, was apparent in the discussions engaged in by participants in the Marital Perspectives Study.

Task 4. Coping with crises

Whether normative or non-normative, long-term or acute, crises affect each spouse differently and have the potential either to strengthen or erode the marriage. The couples Wallerstein interviewed (all of whom had experienced at least one personal or family tragedy) coped with the tragedies they experienced in ways that protected the core relationship. They kept the crisis in perspective, containing their fears as much as possible to the actual event rather than allowing it and their fear, anger and anxiety to intrude on and overwhelm either their marital relationship or other parts of their lives. They tried to be realistic about the crisis and gathered information to inform their responses, acknowledging and supporting (sometimes not until a crisis had passed) each other's individual ways of coping. Attributing blame either to themselves or their spouse was avoided and, just as importantly, they tried to prevent their spouse from self-blame. Where there were signs of an impending crisis (for example, increasing depression or substance use) they took action to prevent it or minimise the effects, not allowing a potentially difficult situation to get out of hand. And as with many couples in the other studies described in this paper, making it through crises together came to be seen as helping to further fortify the foundations of the marriage.

Task 5. Making a safe place for conflict

The marriages Wallerstein observed were not without conflict but the spouses indicated that, sooner or later, they had learned over time that conflict did not mean the marriage was over. The knowledge that expressing anger did not threaten the marriage per se created a space in which spouses felt safe enough to vent their anger within certain agreed parameters. Wallerstein had no evidence to lead her to assume these particular couples were highly skilled communicators; rather they had learned which conflicts to fight over and which to ignore or accept, and even when fighting they remained wary of how their behaviour was affecting their spouse. There were rules that may have been clearly articulated at some point in the relationship or that had evolved over time, that reflected the primacy of caring for the spouse even during conflict. One principal rule was that physical violence was completely unacceptable. There was also an awareness that attacking particular vulnerabilities was unacceptable. Conflict may be an inevitable part of being married, but couples in Wallerstein's and other studies stressed the need to be honest but tactful (for example, Alford-Cooper 1998; Lauer and Lauer 1986; Mackey and O'Brien 1995).

Task 6. Exploring sexual love and intimacy

Sex and intimacy, either separately or together, played a more or less central role in the marriages of Wallerstein's participants, although for some couples there was also an emphasis on simple touch and affection. Many couples had experienced problems in their sexual relationship at one time or another and they spoke candidly of how they had helped each other overcome those difficulties, evidence of the great trust and goodwill in these relationships. For some couples sex was less important than the bonds of intimacy and friendship. In Mackey and O'Brien's study, psychological intimacy was more important than physical intimacy in their later years. That intimacy grew over time, based on mutual trust, love and understanding, and deepened through shared experiences and overcoming obstacles. In Wallerstein's study, couples reported that their sex life had suffered during times when their lives became more stressful, however they learned to adapt to the changes in levels of desire and activity experienced by one or both spouses and generally it did not become a source of conflict. While the frequency had diminished for most couples as they grew older, the excitement and enjoyment seemed not to have abated at all, especially for those couples whose marriages Wallerstein described as 'romantic'.

Task 7. Sharing laughter and keeping interests alive

The contribution of humour to a happy and lasting marriage is mentioned so often as to be almost considered a given (along with love, trust and respect). Humour provides an emotional connection that goes beyond simply trading jokes. In the everyday lighthearted repartee in which couples engage there is an intimacy that strengthens the bond between them. It is a part of their daily lives to which Wallerstein's happy couples attended, using humour to defuse conflict and hostility, salve wounded egos, or add a spark of playfulness. These couples also expected and prepared for change on a range of levels. They shared some hobbies or pastimes and had others they enjoyed separately, both of which help to maintain their interest in each other. Added to their individual engagement in the world outside of their marriage, whether in the workplace, education or some other sphere of life, their separate and joint activities contribute to the sense of knowing and understanding another, and being themselves known and understood.

Task 8. Providing emotional nurturance

The marriages of the couples in Wallerstein's study, like those of the participants in the Marital Perspectives Study, provided a haven for each spouse, a place of comfort and affirmation. In the sanctuary of the marriage each spouse can find a space to feel and express the full range of emotions. These couples had learned over time to successfully read their spouse's moods, their body language, and had developed responses that provided relief, sympathy, encouragement or support. As participants in the Marital Perspectives Study noted, this 'emotional refuelling' can be very difficult in a family where there are competing demands of two careers and children. The happy couples in Wallerstein's study devised ways of allowing each spouse the time and space to recharge, in the way that worked best for them individually and as a couple. Joint holidays or time alone, escape from the phone or the children, or help with work or school assignments are some solutions they found.

Nurturing of the spouse was not done with the expectation of it being returned in equal measure, for as individuals they would each have different emotional needs, nor was it seen as a competition in which each kept score. Similarly, in Alford-Cooper's study, couples talked about the need to be prepared to give more than receive. Each spouse recognised that looking after the emotional needs of their spouse was an integral part of making the marriage work for both of them.

Task 9. Preserving a double vision

'Double vision' refers to the two images of the marriage the couples held in their minds: that of images from the past and of the realities of the present. In several of the studies discussed in this paper, couples spoke of memories to which they returned regularly, images that reminded them of particular times or events from their shared history, that connects their past and present. They were often idealised images or memories but, as Wallerstein points out, being able to draw on these visions serves to soften disappointments and remain optimistic when the marriage is experiencing difficult times. Holding on to these rosy recollections did not mean couples were deluding themselves about the reality of their spouse and their marriage, but for some couples the bond provided by their shared past kept them from taking steps to end the marriage (Alford- Cooper 1998). Partners' views of their spouses remained cognisant of their flaws as well as their strengths, but the dual vision was crucial to maintaining the marriage.