Why marriages last

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

Studies of lasting marriages

Not all long-term marriages are satisfying for both spouses and those who stay in an unhappy marriage do so for a variety of reasons. The data reported from the studies of long-term marriages outlined below underline the active nature of the process of creating and maintaining a satisfying marriage over long periods. The studies included in this paper were conducted across the early 1980s and the 1990s and involve predominantly qualitative analyses. Despite the fact that qualitative research is often criticised for being 'soft' (Neuman 1997), it is the capacity to capture the meaning attached to aspects of human and social life that makes qualitative research appropriate and useful for exploring couple relationships.

Comment on methodology

In considering the studies described below, some methodological concerns should be kept in mind. For the most part the samples are fairly small and have been obtained by a range of non-random techniques that automatically constrain the generalisability of the data. Most, although not all, participants were white, well-educated members of the middle or upper classes. Although many participating couples had experienced some of the major life events that potentially test a couple relationship, the additional resources afforded them by their social and economic circumstances, rather than anything associated with the couple relationship per se, may have helped to cushion the marriage from stress.

Being retrospective, the data may be subject to a positive bias towards providing information that is consistent with the respondents' current situation. The rationale for this bias is that if a person is still in a marriage then the marriage must be happy and responses should convey that image. However, spouses in all studies cited in this paper described both negative and positive aspects of their marriages and freely pointed out that their marriages had not always been happy. While caution should be exercised in interpreting retrospective data, it should be remembered that, for the researcher, the accuracy of the information may be less important than the meaning it holds for the respondent (Mackey and O'Brien 1995; Alford-Cooper 1998).

Married people: Staying together in the age of divorce

'How have you managed to stay married for so long [almost 30 years]? Maybe if I knew I wouldn't be so leery of marriage myself.' (Single woman, late 20s.)

'Single people think all long-married people are cowards.' (Divorced man, mid-30s.)

Klagsbrun's (1985) study of long-married couples had its origins in these two comments. One of the first researchers to 'go to the source', she recruited and interviewed 87 middle class married couples. At the time they were interviewed in the early 1980s, marriages of 15 years or more were considered to be especially likely to last given they had 'survived' the intense social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s.

Klagsbrun reports eight characteristics of long-married couples that emerged from the couples' descriptions of their marriages.

  • Ability to change and adapt to change In the face of extraordinary social change these long-married couples retained a positive attitude. Rather than see such changes as destructive they were accommodated, viewed as something to be dealt with as a couple. Increasing access to education for women and their greater participation in the labour force were two changes that challenged established perceptions of the value both of established institutions such as marriage and of the roles men and women were expected to adopt.
  • Ability to live with the unchangeable The happy long-married couples appeared to have been very pragmatic. They seemed not to expect a perfect marriage in which every disagreement had to be completely resolved - they could let some things be. Their attitude seemed to be one of 'the glass being half full' - they looked to the positives in the marriage and concentrated on their strengths, channelling energy they might have put into settling disputes into finding ways to accommodate the differences and enjoying the relationship.
  • Assumption of permanence Having a lasting marriage was important to the couple. Whatever its faults, they were committed to the marriage and were prepared to compromise for the sake of the relationship - not for their family or for their Church. These couples accepted that at various times their commitment to the marriage and the balance of give and take in their relationship would waver, but they believed that over time that balance would even out. They shared a firm belief in the value of marriage as an institution that remained solid in the face of whatever difficulties and upheaval they had encountered. In this sense their marriage was a refuge.
  • Trust The core of these marriages was trust. Whatever trials and tribulations they experienced their trust in each other remained strong and provided them with a sense of safety and security - a marker of happy, lasting marriages. It was the basis for the development of both psychological and sexual intimacy and the anchor of their fidelity.
  • Balance of dependencies (power) Even in the more traditional marriages the spouses acknowledged their emotional dependence on each other. Furthermore, they learned that the balance of dependence was not static, that Australian Institute of Family Studies Research Paper No. 28, July 2002 8 at various times one would be more dependent than the other or one would need more nurturing than the other. Their need for each other and dependence on their spouse was not viewed as a weakness of the marriage but a strength - because they saw themselves as mutually dependent. Despite the deep attachment evident between spouses, Klagsbrun reported that spouses didn't feel that their individual identities had been damaged or subsumed by their spouses; each appeared capable of surviving outside of the couple - but they preferred not to.
  • Enjoyment of each other In the happier long-term marriages the couples enjoyed each other's company, would talk, argue and listen. They tended to have similar values. The emotional and physical connection between spouses was often apparent to Klagsbrun as she interviewed them. Couples would not agree on everything nor did they necessarily share the same interests, but they worked out compromises to accommodate their differences, and pursuing individual activities helped some couples to remain interesting to each other. The key was in achieving a balance between time together and time apart. Finding such a balance contributed to the sense of intimacy and satisfaction with the marriage.
  • Cherished, shared history Long-married couples valued their shared experiences. Their history gave them a perspective on the present, allowing them to view events that had the potential to damage the marriage in light of both what they had already overcome and their accumulated positive experiences. This was not simply nostalgia. Their joint history was a significant part of their individual histories, 'an entity' that reminded them of their capacity to survive in the past and helped to prevent hasty decisionmaking in the face of difficulties in the present.
  • Luck Even with all these characteristics, couples were aware that holding their marriage together had also involved a little luck. Luck can play a role in protecting a marriage from the unpredictable, in that the couple relationship is not tested as often or as severely as it might have been, but the couples Klagsbrun interviewed had experienced their share of problems, and sometimes more. It may have been luck that brought spouses together in the first place, or that provided the opportunity to overcome difficult backgrounds or circumstances. However, Klagsbrun's impression of those who thought of themselves as lucky was that their marital success was as much due to their positive outlook and making the best of things as it was to sheer chance.

The happier couples Klagsbrun interviewed had remained together both 'because of' the emotional benefits they gained through their marriage, and 'in spite of' the stresses and strains they may have experienced (p. 279). There is also an air of intentionality underlying the eight qualities of long-married couples described above, a sense that those couples whose marriages had lasted realised that responsibility for the outcome of the marriage was at least to some degree in their own hands. Their marriages survive and flourish because for them remaining in the marriage was the happiest choice they could make (p xvi).

'Til death do us part': How couples stay together

Using criteria and methods similar to Klagsbrun, but accessing a much larger sample, Lauer and Lauer (1986) studied 351 couples who had been married at least 15 years. They obtained their data via questionnaires, interviews and personal accounts of the ups and downs couples had experienced. Both spouses were happy in 300 marriages, 32 couples were mixed (one happy, one not), and both spouses were unhappy in 19 marriages. As is often the case in these kinds of studies, the couples tended to be in the middle to upper socio-economic strata.

Couples identified several characteristics that, as well as being important to the marriage overall, were equally valued by husbands and wives. The following were reported by the spouses independently as the 'top seven' reasons for their marital success:

  • spouse as best friend;
  • liking spouse as a person;
  • marriage as a long term commitment;
  • marriage as a sacred institution;
  • agreement on aims and goals;
  • spouses becoming more interesting to each other;
  • wanting the relationship to succeed.

The outstanding feature of this list is that it was identical for both husbands and wives. Such a high degree of consensus attests to the critical role those attributes play in creating a marriage that will last. Clearly a deep and abiding friendship is a key characteristic of these long-term marriages.

The second key feature of long-term marriages related to commitment. Both happily and unhappily married spouses shared a strong belief in marriage as an institution and as a long-term commitment. The difference between them was that the happier couples were committed both to the marriage and their spouse; for these couples, their connectedness and intimacy were a product or consequence of being married. Couples who were in mixed or unhappy marriages were committed to the marriage for its own sake, but not to their spouse; for these couples, the marriage was endured out of their sense of duty - to their children and family, or their faith, their community, or to society. Lauer and Lauer (1986: 181) quote one husband who summed it up this way:

'Commitment means a willingness to be unhappy for a while . . . You're not going to be happy with each other all the time. That's when commitment is really important.'

Happily married couples also felt that sharing important fundamental aims, goals and values helped them to create and maintain their relationship, but where there were differences of opinion the lack of consensus was not interpreted as damaging to the relationship. There was a recognition that making efforts to achieve and maintain an acceptable balance of separateness and togetherness was necessary for long-term satisfaction. Respondents drew attention also to other qualities in their spouse and their marital relationship such as caring, giving, integrity and humour, having similar opinions and philosophies, the expression of affection and their sex life, and taking pride in their spouse's achievements.

In contrast with what therapists believed at the time, couples thought that holding some things back during arguments was much wiser than 'letting it all hang out'. They did not expect that the relational dynamics in the marital relationship would always be evenly balanced, nor did they expect perpetual bliss. There was a recognition that the couple was more important than individual interests and pursuits, not in the sense of the romantic notion that 'two become one' but that the sense of being 'a couple' enriches them as individuals.

Lasting marriages: Men and women growing together

'There is a growing together . . . like a tree around a boulder underneath the ground. The root eventually goes around it.' (57 year old man, married 25 years; pxii)

Mackey and O'Brien (1995) interviewed 60 couples who married during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. They selected a sample of couples whose youngest child had completed high school that would provide a diverse sample representing major American religious, ethnic, racial and occupational groups. The interviews explored how their marriages had developed and progressed across the years, in particular the three broad phases of the early years, the childrearing years, and 'empty-nest' years.

In broad terms spouses' satisfaction with their marriage was not related to their sex or their age, to how many years they had been married, or how many children they had. Social demographic characteristics had minor effects. Husbands tended to be more positive about the relationship than wives, although wives reported both positives and negatives. Satisfaction was higher for those with less education and for those in the higher and lower versus the middle income brackets.

Mackey and O'Brien identified five factors that appeared to be important to marital longevity.

  • Containment of conflict Couples reported that most of their conflict occurred during the childrearing years. Failure to adequately resolve major difficulties arising during the parenting years undermined satisfaction, particularly if the cycle of negative interaction and defensiveness was allowed to go unchecked as they approached the third (retirement/empty nest) phase of the marriage. For most couples the husbands and wives differed in the way they dealt with conflict, men typically being more avoidant than women, although couples reported that changes towards more open and direct ways of dealing with conflict helped to improve satisfaction - as long as there was seen to be movement on the part of both husbands and wives.
  • Mutuality of decision-making The degree of mutual decision-making increased over the life of the marriage, especially as the children went through adolescence. During the early years of the marriage the role of decision-maker was often split according to gender roles: men made most of the major decisions except where the home or children were concerned, however there was a general trend towards joint decision-making as couples moved towards the third phase of the marriage, when children began to leave the home. In particular, decision-making with respect to friends, major financial outlays and leisure activities increasingly involved exchange and reciprocity. Couples who reported higher levels of joint decision-making also reported significantly higher levels of marital satisfaction.
  • Quality of communication The period of their children's adolescence was highlighted as the time when couple communication was fraught with challenges. Often though, it led to better communication patterns. Couples reported that over time they became more open and expressive with each other, characteristics associated with higher levels of satisfaction. Expressive communication, or at least some combination of the expressive and instrumental ('showing' rather than 'telling') modes, was associated with greater satisfaction in the third phase of marriage. Couples who maintained primarily instrumental patterns of relating into their later years tended to be less satisfied with their relationship.
  • Relational values of trust, respect, understanding and equity Respondents indicated that in the early years of the marriage, the respect, trust and understanding they received from their spouses was vital to marital satisfaction. In the empty-nest years, however, the reciprocity of these values was the key to satisfaction. As time-dependent values, mutual trust and understanding were significantly related to satisfaction only in the post- Research Paper No. 28, July 2002 Australian Institute of Family Studies 11 parenting years, having been built up gradually in the early years. Couples recognised that at times their marriage was unfair to one spouse (usually the wife during the child-rearing years), but as long as the spouses felt some sense of equity, erosion of marital satisfaction was prevented.
  • Sexual and psychological intimacy Mackey and O'Brien viewed intimacy as a composite of mutual understanding, acceptance, trust, and respect based on being open and honest about one's feelings and reflected both physically and psychologically. Of the two, the psychological intimacy that grew during the post-parenting years contributed more to the overall levels of satisfaction in the later years than physical intimacy. Satisfactory marriages were usually described as psychologically intimate, but for dissatisfied spouses that intimacy was absent. Intimacy grew over time, often becoming deeper as couples overcame difficulties and worked through the low points in their marriage. Life events provided couples with opportunities for reinforcement of existing feelings or propelled them towards developing stronger feelings of connectedness.

The themes of adaptability, resilience and commitment recurred throughout the interviews. Satisfied couples adapted to change and drew on the marriage as well as the resources and support around them to help them cope. Commitment was seen as the glue that held them together . . . the 'assuring sense of being together, no matter what' (Mackey and O'Brien 1995: 144). While some of their values and attitudes underwent significant changes over the years, their views of marriage as a permanent commitment of love and fidelity held fast.

For keeps: Marriages that last a lifetime

In a larger study than the others described above, Alford-Cooper (1998) collected data on 576 couples whose marriages were intact after 50 years or more. Concentrating on a single geographic region, Long Island, New York, Alford- Cooper gathered information spanning key stages in the couples' lives, from their early courtship through marriage, parenting and growing old. From questionnaires, information pertaining to a range of marital dimensions was gathered, including the factors they thought contributed to their marital longevity, and a subset of 60 couples were also interviewed extensively.

During interviews, Alford-Cooper gathered the couples' life stories - how they met and married, how they dealt with difficulties and obstacles, how their relationships had survived. She also asked the interviewees their views on the younger generation and the advice they would give to young marrying couples.

Over half (56 per cent) of the spouses described themselves as very happily married and a further 37 per cent reported being happily married. Almost all (99 per cent) reported that when they married they thought it would last, but they had no other specific expectations of marriage. Love had kept many couples together, but unhappy couples had remained bonded through their children. Significantly, although 21 per cent of all spouses had at some time contemplated the failure of the marriage, divorce simply 'wasn't an option' (p. 134), either because of their deeply held beliefs that divorce was unacceptable, or because they had no resources or support networks on which to rely. For many spouses, little or no support for a decision to divorce was likely to be found among their own family. Some reported incidents where they had returned to their parents' home only to be immediately sent back to their spouse.

When the 576 couples were asked which of eight relationship characteristics had helped them stay together, three groups of characteristics emerged. The first comprised the three most frequently endorsed characteristics: trust (82 per cent), loving relationship (81 per cent), and willingness to compromise (80 per cent). The second group comprised mutual respect (72 per cent), need for each other (70 per cent), and compatibility (66 per cent). The third group comprised children (57 per cent), and good communication (53 per cent). When asked to add any other characteristics, spouses most often added sense of humour. They also tended to have similar attitudes towards marriage, with high levels of agreement about the sanctity of marriage and the need for fidelity and commitment.

While financial pressures prevented some women and men from leaving the marriage, for many their interdependence and sense of shared history deflected them from taking the necessary steps towards divorce. One of the components of the bond that helped to keep some couples together was their willingness to give more than they received. How much each spouse was giving or taking at any point in time was seen to be flexible and couples acknowledged that rarely was the balance equal. But where this willingness was missing, or too one-sided, there was little to bind the couple beyond obligation and lack of viable alternatives. Such relationships also tended not to be characterised by love and respect, compromise or good communication, attributes that, when combined with an acceptance of the nature of the relationship, keep the couple from proceeding towards divorce.

When asked how they would advise young couples on how to make their marriage a long and happy one, respondents highlighted five key approaches.

  • There must be a similarity of values, backgrounds and interests as a way to prevent or ameliorate discord, especially in relation to children and parenting.
  • A successful marriage will be characterised by love, regard and mutual respect that go beyond sexual desire and contribute to an intimacy that can only be developed over time.
  • Don't look for, or try to create, the perfect spouse. Take the time to get to really know your spouse's character before marrying them - and then make a serious commitment to the development of a long-term marriage.
  • Communicate openly and honestly but tactfully, even and especially during those times when communicating is most difficult.
  • Show a willingness to compromise, to negotiate and to share responsibilities, realising that you won't always be giving and taking in equal measures but that over time it will balance out.

Together through thick and thin: A multinational picture of long-term marriages

Sharlin, Kaslow and Hammerschmidt (2000) conducted a unique study of nonclinical couples from eight countries (United States, Canada, Israel, Chile, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, and South Africa) who had been married (or living together in the case of Sweden) for at least 20 years. Apart from making cross-cultural comparisons, the researchers had a number of aims reflecting their family therapy orientation. These were: to identify which attributes of lasting marriages contribute to their capacity to weather the inevitable marital storms; to examine how various socio-demographic variables (such as ethnicity, religion, culture, and socio-economic status) influence couples; and to inform practitioners of ways in which marriages can be supported and improved.

The total of 610 couples married (or living together) for between 20 and 46 years was obtained largely via the authors' networking. Almost all couples were over the age of 45 years and were approaching either the empty-nest years or retirement. The authors acknowledge the limitations of their study due to their sample being largely middle to upper-middle class, although the findings suggest that long-term satisfying marriages are not dependent on wealth.

Unlike the other studies discussed in this paper, participants were not interviewed. Rather, they completed an extensive battery of questionnaires covering each person's family background, relationship history, parents and marital relationships, ratings of marital adjustment, problem solving, communication, reasons for staying married, and ingredients for marital satisfaction. Early in their analyses the researchers determined that there was no need to structure comparisons according to sample characteristics since the differences in the samples across countries were small and unimportant.

At least some aspects of creating and maintaining lasting and satisfactory marriages appear to be independent of culture or geography. Love, mutuality and sharing emerged as bases of the respondents' long-term marital satisfaction, and a number of qualities such as mutuality of trust, respect, support and give and take, sharing of values, beliefs (including religion), interests, philosophies, fun and humour, all arose consistently across cultures.

Motives for staying together at the time of their interview clearly revolved around commitment to the marital partnership and love for their spouse, whereas when times were tough staying together for the children and honouring the commitment to the lifelong partnership were prime motivators. In a further comparison of three of the motives (the reason for selecting these three in particular is not explained) it emerges that children play a role in warding off divorce when couples are unhappy, while lifestyle and love are less important. At the other end of the spectrum, extremely happy couples stay together out of their love for their partner; lifestyle and love are important for very happy couples; and children, lifestyle and love are salient motivators for happy couples.

An unassailable belief in and commitment to the institution of marriage and to their spouse was especially apparent with respect to why couples stayed together during difficult times, and in the majority of cases this commitment was underpinned by their religious affiliation and beliefs. In referring to very difficult times in their relationship, most couples, whether currently happy or unhappy, reported that honouring their commitment to a lifelong partnership and their sense of responsibility towards their children were the prime reasons for seeing the marriage or relationship through the stressful periods. Satisfied couples also cited the motivating power of their love for their spouse or partner, but for dissatisfied couples forces external to the couple such as children and religious beliefs exerted greater influence on their decision to remain in the marriage.

That the rankings of ingredients for relationship satisfaction and the motives for staying together during difficult times were very similar across nations contributes further to the notion of the universal nature of the attributes of lasting marriages. In addition, satisfaction with the marriage was predicted in all countries only by various couple relationship quality variables (such as closeness, communication, affection expression etc), whereas overall life satisfaction was predicted by dimensions such as employment, length of marriage, health, and economic status, as well as closeness.

Even though respondents' marriages had been maintained for very long periods, couples were not unaware of some deficiencies in their relationship. Couples' rankings of the desired ingredients of their relationship were quite different from those they regarded as currently extant in their relationship. Components of relationship dynamics reflecting the original declaration of love, and the behaviours that contribute to intimacy were endorsed as ideal relationship characteristics that were to some extent deficient in their relationship: patience and understanding, mutual sexual fulfilment, and sensitivity and consideration for spouse's needs.

Marital perspectives study

Standard interview methods were used in most of the studies described above to obtain both quantitative and qualitative information. In the Marital Perspectives Study conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (Parker 2000), focus groups were used to explore aspects of marriage as it was perceived by a group of individuals who had been married, remarried or in a de facto relationship for relatively long periods. The sample was drawn from Victorian participants in the Australian Family Life Course Study conducted by the Institute in 1996. Discussions focused on the meanings respondents attached to marriage, what changes they had seen both in their own marriage and in marriage in general, and how marriages can be nurtured and supported. Each focus group discussion was recorded, transcribed and analysed for recurring themes.

Those who participated (12 men, aged between 28 and 73 years; and 18 women, aged between 33 and 71 years) tended to be fairly well educated individuals from the middle or high economic strata, in satisfying relationships of relatively long duration (26.5 years men, 20.6 years women).

The meaning of marriage

Among the range of responses to the issue of the meaning of marriage companionship and commitment were prominent. Two strong themes emerged from further discussion of this issue - sense of couple identity and spouse attributes. The first theme of 'couple-ness' comprised joint activities, goals and decision-making, sharing and teamwork. In the second theme, three characteristics of a 'good' spouse were highlighted - tolerance, support and communication. Belief in marriage as an institution, its symbolism and its place in their lives and in society ran deep for most respondents. The majority of those who were married had not questioned or analysed their decision, seeing it as part of the traditional passage through life.

Expectations of marriage

A generational difference became apparent when discussion turned to what participants had expected of marriage. Respondents married over 30 years reported that they 'fell' into marriage, not really thinking much about it since it was simply an accepted and expected event in one's life. On the other hand, younger respondents said they knew exactly what they were doing and for some of them marriage had so far unfolded as they expected.

The comments from older participants seem to relate to their marriage in a general sense, that overall they had little idea of what marriage held in store for them. However, they did note that their ideas about particular roles and behaviours within marriage were quite clear, and largely based on their parents' marriages. When the assumption that they could carry the roles they had observed in their parents' marriage into their own was shown to be faulty, respondents noted that they had realised that some adjustment and negotiation was required.

For some, building their own relationship had involved rejecting much of the role modelling they had observed in their parents' marriage. The power of poor modelling to shape younger generations relationship experience was obvious to respondents.

'The trouble with young couples today . . .'

Participants saw young couples as better informed about marriage than they themselves had been, because young couples have had the benefit of growing up in an environment where all aspects of relationships are openly discussed. However, their education was perceived to be deficient because of the focus on sex education rather than preparation for relationships - marriage or otherwise.

Participants recognised that the social, cultural and economic environment was very different for young couples compared to the times in which they had married, and that following more than two decades of no-fault divorce many young people had become insecure about relationships in general and wary of marriage in particular. As Kitson (1992) comments, exposure to high divorce rates in combination with having little knowledge of what a 'good' marriage looks like may result in what she calls a 'defensive marriage' (p. 79), one in which couples hope the marriage lasts but, just in case it doesn't, they take out insurance against possible failure by building in some protective measures. Holding back from making a total commitment or entering into prenuptial agreements can be seen as ways of protecting aspects of oneself.

Participants noted that in spite of their insecurities about marriage, young couples tended to have extremely high expectations of marriage and of their partner. In contrast, when respondents (particularly if they were older) talked about entering their own marriages, they mentioned having hopes for the marriage. They had expectations relating to its permanence, the likelihood of children, and the roles they would play, but primarily they hoped the marriage would succeed. Their own view was that they and their spouse provide a 'stable base' for each other, allowing individuals to have and retain their individual interests and resources secure in the knowledge that there is a safe place to return.

In addition to realising that young couples form relationships and families in a very different society from the one they knew as young adults, participants acknowledged the erosion of beliefs in the institution of marriage and the traditional pathways to adulthood. A consequence of these changes and the wariness with which young people view marriage is the perception that young couples find it difficult to make the deep commitment to marriage that would help them to get through the trying times that are almost inevitable. What participants had found is that weathering those storms strengthens the relationship, a view supported by research evidence (Waite and Gallagher 2000).

Reasons for their 'successful' marriage

Several factors emerged as contributing to the longevity of participants' marriages. In addition to the emotional bonds of love and trust, participants saw a genuine friendship between spouses to have been necessary to the long-term maintenance of the relationship. They thought there had been an element of luck in finding a spouse with similar values and beliefs and who matched them in the ways in which they had grown and changed over the years. A number of factors encouraged couples to 'hang in there' when they experienced marital difficulties, including: a sense of the role of marriage and children in a fulfilling life; the value of marriage as an institution; the presence of a network of support; and their commitment both to the spouse and to the marriage. Finally, whatever they had done to keep the marriage going had involved an active process of negotiation and compromise.

Supporting and building strong marriages

One of the key areas in which focus group participants saw the need for change was in the amount of time couples and families spent together. It had been important to participants to set aside some time for the couple in order to maintain and build on the marital bonds. In terms of promoting healthy attitudes towards marriage, participants commented on the need to reserve time for the couple. The necessity for both spouses in many couples to work in order to survive or achieve an acceptable standard of living, often without the support of an extended family, means there is little breathing space for quality 'couple time'. In addition to providing that much-needed breathing space, they felt that children needed to see that the couple relationship is an important one, and that it is independent of the relationship between parents and children. Concentrating on helping couples balance their work and family commitments was seen as a way of promoting strong and stable marriages that would provide positive role models as well as better outcomes for children. According to participants, seeing strong marital relationships is necessary for young people to learn how to develop their own strong marital relationships.

Participants also saw the need to support young couples by helping them to be better prepared for marriage in terms of having realistic expectations of marriage and marriage partners. Few had experienced any form of marriage or relationship education. However, they referred to the need for programs aimed at young people in schools as well as those preparing for marriage that addressed aspects of marriage and relationships such as communication skills, and exploring the often overlooked 'companionship basis' of a relationship.

The good marriage

The studies outlined above reveal a set of characteristics that define both the individual spouses and the marriages of those couples who participated. However, it can be tempting to interpret a set of characteristics or attributes as a 'recipe' for a successful marriage, assuming that if one or more of the key 'ingredients' is absent the marriage is doomed to either mediocrity or dissolution.

An alternative approach put forward by Wallerstein and Blakeslee (1996) conceptualises happy and lasting marriages as the products of a series of processes. Such an approach carries a sense of the dynamism and complexity of marriage, rather than of attributes that each spouse may or may not possess.

Wallerstein extensively interviewed and observed 50 married couples who volunteered or were recruited via colleagues and associates. To be included in the study couples were required to have been married for nine years or longer, have at least one child, classify their marriage as very happy, and be willing to be interviewed both individually and together. On average, participants were aged 48 and had been married 21 years. At the time of their interviews the couples were healthy, well-educated, and middle to upper middle class, although many had come from backgrounds that were far from happy.

Based on her interviews with these couples, Wallerstein identified four (not mutually exclusive) types of marriage - romantic, rescue, companionate, and traditional.

  • Romantic marriages give the lie to the notion that romance and passion necessarily have a short shelf-life. In these unions couples still talked in terms of their ongoing attraction to each other and the excitement in their relationship. The spouses' individual identities were defined by their relationship, and it is perhaps unsurprising that it is in these marriages that couples talked of being 'completed' by their spouse. The idealisation of the partner that occurs during courtship seemed to be perpetuated by these couples throughout their marriage. In comparison, Wallerstein noted that many of the divorced couples she has encountered in her marital therapy practice seem never to have looked at their spouse through the rose-coloured glasses considered to be typical of new relationships. Her clinical observations are supported by recent research showing that couples who hold idealised views of their partner have more lasting, less conflicted, and more satisfying relationships (Murray, Holmes and Griffin 1996). Research Paper No. 28, July 2002 Australian Institute of Family Studies 17
  • Rescue marriages comprised a fifth of the couples Wallerstein interviewed. In these unions the childhood of one or both spouses was characterised by abandonment, cruelty, abuse, or parental mental illness, yet they had managed to construct a 'successful' marriage. One of the reasons these marriages worked so well seems to be that the spouses identify very strongly with each other, in some cases because of their similar histories (for example, 'we are both survivors', p. 108), or because the spouse's characteristics or behaviours were the opposite of those on which the respondent's early traumatic experiences were based. These marriages were not formed by couples who were simply running away from their past experiences; they are actively shaped by the spouses in ways that enable them to get beyond the past.
  • Companionate marriages are characterised by equality in all facets of life. Such marriages in Wallerstein's sample tended to occur among couples who grew up through the turbulence of the 1960s. Careers are central to their lives, but they also share responsibilities across marital domains, striving to be fair about allocating household and family tasks. Wallerstein's observations led her to believe that companionate marriages are particularly vulnerable because they do not have the additional glue provided by the idealisation of the romantic marriage, the well-defined and accepted roles and domains of responsibility associated with the traditional marriage, or the strong identification between spouses in rescue marriages. This is not to say that companionate marriages cannot be as happy and successful as other marriages - this was, after all, a criterion for participation in the study. Wallerstein's point is that the competing forces of marriage, children and work can eat away at a marriage if the spouses do not have the energy, commitment or the high self-confidence required to sustain such a marriage over long periods.
  • Traditional marriages were not restricted to only the older of the couples in the study - 25 per cent of couples married in the 1970s and early 1980s were described as having a traditional marriage. Wallerstein notes two kinds of traditional marriage. In the older form, the husband is provider and protector, the wife is the creator of a nurturing home, and together they construct a sanctuary in which to raise children. Comfort - taking care and being considerate of each other - was at the core of the older traditional marriages: the husband by directing his energies towards providing for his family economically, the wife by creating a comfortable haven for the husband and children. In more recent traditional marriages, women expect to experience both motherhood and a career - or at least be involved in the workforce to some degree - but not simultaneously, at least not while the children are young. Roles are less rigidly defined. Unlike older traditional marriages, children are less likely to be the reason for the marriage although they are central to them.

All of the couples in this study evaluated their marriage as very happy. For them this meant not only that they felt respected and cherished by their spouse but that they respected and admired certain qualities in their spouse. The importance of this mutual respect is underscored by Wallerstein when she notes that loss of respect is a central element of divorcing couples' relationships. It would appear that as well as accepting themselves as worthy of being loved, spouses must hold a firm belief that their spouse is 'worthy of being loved' (p. 328).

Wallerstein states that marriage is 'always a work in progress' (p. 269). In this respect the happy couples she interviewed and observed differed from many unhappy couples she has seen in her practice: they had begun with a solid foundation and understood that the relationship required ongoing maintenance. Their views were realistic - building a marriage with anyone involves negotiating a lot of ups and downs and making compromises. Much of their relationship was based on sharing: goals, a capacity to love, mutual attraction, valuing of and commitment to their children. They felt enhanced by their own marriages and lucky, rather than entitled, to have a spouse with whom they 'fit' so well.