Why marriages last

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

Problems with marital and relationship research

Marital 'quality', a catch-all phrase that refers to satisfaction, adjustment and happiness, was the focus of intense research energy through the 1980s and 1990s. According to Glenn's (1990) summary of the research of the 1980s, that decade was marked by methodological improvements and increased conceptual clarity, but only 'modest' advances were made in understanding 'successful' marriages (p. 818). This is not surprising since many studies were of couples in therapy, or who were already separated or divorced.

Even through the 1990s when researchers explored a wide range of topics related to marital satisfaction, the accumulated research was considered not to have contributed towards an integrated understanding of marital relationships (Bradbury, Fincham and Beach 2000; Karney and Bradbury 1995). Notwithstanding the diversity of studies and the intrinsic value of the findings, these authors also comment that the research has often not been explicitly linked to, or tested hypotheses derived from, a particular theory.

Based on 'snapshot' studies of couples at one point in time we know that a wide range of factors are reliably associated with marital stability and satisfaction. Cumulative evidence from Karney and Bradbury's (1995) meta-analysis of longitudinal studies suggests that there are also a number of factors that do not have direct effects on satisfaction but that are important because they indirectly enhance or erode satisfaction and/or stability via their influence on other marital or spousal variables. Of particular note in their review is the conclusion that, although variables may affect husbands and wives differently, and attributes of husbands and wives can affect their marriage differently, the accumulated evidence suggests that gender differences are often overstated (Karney and Bradbury 1995).

Until fairly recently, marriage and relationship research tended to focus on predicting marital or relationship outcomes rather than understanding marital developmental processes (Karney and Bradbury 1995). Hence there is an enormous body of work in which a wide range of predictors and consequences of marital satisfaction and/or quality have been examined. However, the bulk of that research has focused on the relationships of relatively young couples and has been concerned primarily with factors that distinguish between distressed and non-distressed couples at a certain point in time, usually within the first decade of the marriage (Gottman and Notarius 2000; Sharlin et al. 2000).

An additional criticism of current research is that prospective studies of relationship breakdown often focus on constructs such as conflict management behaviours and overlook the affective dimensions of relationships such as changes in love and romance, which are often reported as important precursors to divorce (Houston, Caughlin, Houts, Smith and George 2001). There is some Australian evidence to support this contention. In an Australian Institute of Family Studies study of 654 divorcees, 21 per cent reported that affective factors, incompatibility, and the sense of the couple drifting apart played a significant role in the break-up of their marriage (Wolcott and Hughes 1999).

With little specific focus on the affective dimension of relationships, researchers cannot be certain of the extent to which relationship distress or breakdown can be attributed to a gradual process of disillusionment, relational dynamics, the accumulation of negativity across time, or some combination of these. As Kitson (1992) points out, the thought of ending a relationship does not spontaneously spring into one's mind. The decision is the result of a process - an accumulation of hurt, disappointment and negative interactions that gradually outweighs the more positive aspects of being in the relationship.

A thorough discussion of the role of affective factors in marriage and relationship maintenance and/or dissolution is beyond the scope of this paper, but (although not addressed directly in much of the quantitative research) affective dimensions of relationships are evident in the stories told by both happily and unhappily married people, as will be seen in the studies described below.

Despite the relative paucity of theory in many of the concurrent studies of marriage, some researchers taking a longitudinal perspective have proposed explanatory frameworks of varying depth and focus that provide a means by which the longitudinal changes in marital relationships can be measured and explained. These frameworks, which take a process view of relationships, are generally tested in quantitative studies of a range of individual and couple characteristics. Two well-regarded theoretical frameworks are Karney and Bradbury's Vulnerability-Adaptation-Stress model of the trajectory of relationship satisfaction, and Gottman's Theory of Marital Dissolution, including the 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse'. These theories are presented in the next section.

A final criticism of marital and relationship research pertains to the preoccupation with examining how relationships breakdown. An alternative approach has emerged in the family functioning literature in which the focus is on the strengths possessed within family units and structures (DeFrain 1999). The question of interest is: 'How do families succeed?' A similar approach has been taken by the authors of the studies cited in this paper around the question 'How do marriages succeed?'.