Will Your Marriage Last
New studies show that the newlywed years can foretell the long-term outcome of almost every marriage. What do your newlywed years predict for you?
What if I told you that there is a man in America who can predict, from the outset, whether or not your marriage will last? He doesn’t need to hear you arguing; he doesn’t need to know what you argue about. He doesn’t even care whether you argue at all.
I was dubious, too, but I was curious enough to attend a lecture on the subject at the most recent American Psychological Association convention in Boston. Ted Huston, Ph.D., a professor of human ecology and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, was showcasing the results of a long-term study of married couples that pierces the heart of social psychological science: the ability to forecast whether a husband and wife, two years after taking their vows, will stay together and whether they will be happy.
My press pass notwithstanding, I went to the seminar for reasons of my own. Fresh out of college I had gotten married–and burned. Some part of me was still reeling from three years of waking up angry every morning, not wanting to go home after work, feeling lonely even as my then husband sat beside me. I went because I have recently remarried and just celebrated my one-year anniversary. Needless to say, I’d like to make this one work. So I scribbled furiously in my notebook, drinking in the graphs and charts–for psychology, for husbands and wives everywhere, but mostly for myself.
Huston, a pioneer in the psychology of relationships, launched the Processes of Adaptation in Intimate Relationships (the “PAIR Project”) in 1981, in which he followed 168 couples–drawn from marriage license records in four counties in a rural and working-class area of Pennsylvania–from their wedding day through 13 years of marriage.
Through multiple interviews, Huston looked at the way partners related to one another during courtship, as newlyweds and through the early years of marriage. Were they “gaga?” Comfortable? Unsure? He measured their positive and negative feelings for each other and observed how those feelings changed over time. Are newlyweds who hug and kiss more likely than other couples to have a happy marriage, he wondered, or are they particularly susceptible to divorce if their romance dissipates? Are newlyweds who bicker destined to part ways?
Since one in two marriages ends in divorce in this country, there ought to be tons of research explaining why. But the existing literature provides only pieces of the larger puzzle.
Past research has led social scientists to believe that newlyweds begin their life together in romantic bliss, and can then be brought down by their inability to navigate the issues that inevitably crop up during the marriage. When Benjamin Karny and Thomas Bradbury did a comprehensive review of the literature in 1995, they confirmed studies such as those of John Gottman and Neil Jacobson, maintaining that the best predictors of divorce are interactive difficulties, such as frequent expressions of antagonism, lack of respect for each other’s ideas and similar interpersonal issues.
But most of this research was done on couples who had been married a number of years, with many of them already well on their way to divorce. It came as no surprise, then, that researchers thought their hostility toward one another predicted the further demise of the relationship.
Huston’s study was unique in that it looked at couples much earlier, when they were courting and during the initial years of marriage, thus providing the first complete picture of the earliest stages of distress. Its four main findings were quite surprising.
First, contrary to popular belief, Huston found that many newlyweds are far from blissfully in love. Second, couples whose marriages begin in romantic bliss are particularly divorce-prone because such intensity is too hard to maintain. Believe it or not, marriages that start out with less “Hollywood romance” usually have more promising futures. Accordingly, and this is the third major finding, spouses in lasting but lackluster marriages are not prone to divorce, as one might suspect; their marriages are less fulfilling to begin with, so there is no erosion of a Western-style romantic ideal. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it is the loss of love and affection, not the emergence of interpersonal issues, that sends couples journeying toward divorce.
By the end of Huston’s study in 1994, the couples looked a lot like the rest of America, falling into four groups. They were either married and happy; married and unhappy; divorced early, within seven years; or divorced later, after seven years–and each category showed a distinct pattern.
Those who remained happily married were very “in love” and affectionate as newlyweds. They showed less ambivalence, expressed negative feelings less often and viewed their mate more positively than other couples. Most importantly, these feelings remained stable over time. By contrast, although many couples who divorced later were very affectionate as newlyweds, they gradually became less loving, more negative, and more critical of their spouse.
Indeed, Huston found that how well spouses got along as newlyweds affected their future, but the major distinguishing factor between those who divorced and those who remained married was the amount of change in the relationship over its first two years.
“The first two years are key–that’s when the risk of divorce is particularly high,” he says. “And the changes that take place during this time tell us a lot about where the marriage is headed.”
What surprised Huston most was the nature of the changes that led to divorce: The experiences of the 56 participating couples who divorced showed that loss of initial levels of love and affection, rather than conflict, was the most salient predictor of distress and divorce. This loss sends the relationship into a downward spiral, leading to increased bickering and fighting, and to the collapse of the union.
“This ought to change the way we think about the early roots of what goes wrong in marriage,” Huston said. “The dominant approach has been to work with couples to resolve conflict, but it should focus on preserving the positive feelings. That’s a very important take-home lesson.”
“Huston’s research fills an important gap in the literature by suggesting that there is more to a successful relationship than simply managing conflict,” said Harry Reis, Ph.D., of the University of Rochester, a leading social psychologist.
“My own research speaks to `loss of intimacy,’ in the sense that when people first become close they feel a tremendous sense of validation from each other, like their partner is the only other person on earth who sees things as they do. That feeling sometimes fades, and when it does, it can take a heavy toll on the marriage.”
Social science has a name for that fading dynamic–“disillusionment”: Lovers initially put their best foot forward, ignoring each other’s–and the relationship’s–shortcomings. But after they tie the knot, hidden aspects of their personalities emerge, and idealized images give way to more realistic ones. This can lead to disappointment, loss of love and, ultimately, distress and divorce.
When Marriage Fails
The story of Peter and Suzie, participants in the PAIR Project, shows classic disillusionment. When they met, Suzie was 24, a new waitress at the golf course where Peter, then 26, played. He was “awed” by her beauty. After a month the two considered themselves an exclusive couple. Peter said Suzie “wasn’t an airhead; she seemed kind of smart, and she’s pretty.” Suzie said Peter “cared a lot about me as a person, and was willing to overlook things.”
By the time they strolled down the aisle on Valentine’s Day in 1981, Peter and Suzie had dated only nine months, experiencing many ups and downs along the way.
Huston says couples are most vulnerable to disillusionment when their courtship is brief. In a whirlwind romance, it’s easy to paint an unrealistically rosy picture of the relationship, one that cannot be sustained.
Sure enough, reality soon set in for Peter and Suzie. Within two years, Suzie was less satisfied with almost every aspect of their marriage. She expressed less affection for Peter and felt her love decline continuously. She considered him to have “contrary” traits, such as jealousy and possessiveness, and resented his propensity to find fault with her.
Peter, for his part, was disappointed that his wife did not become the flawless parent and homemaker he had envisioned.
Another danger sign for relationships is a courtship filled with drama and driven by external circumstances. For this pair, events related to Peter’s jealousy propelled the relationship forward. He was the force behind their destroying letters and pictures from former lovers. It was a phone call between Suzie and an old flame that prompted him to bring up the idea of marriage in the first place. And it was a fit of jealousy–over Suzie’s claiming to go shopping and then coming home suspiciously late–that convinced Peter he was ready to marry.
Theirs was a recipe for disaster: A short courtship, driven largely by Peter’s jealousy, enabled the pair to ignore flaws in the relationship and in each other, setting them up for disappointment. That disappointment eroded their love and affection, which soured their perception of each other’s personalities, creating feelings of ambivalence.
Ten years after saying “I do,” the disaffected lovers were in the midst of divorce. When Suzie filed the papers, she cited as the primary reason a gradual loss of love.
The parallels between Peter and Suzie’s failed marriage and my own are striking: My courtship with my first husband was short, also about nine months. Like Peter, I had shallow criteria: This guy was cool; he had long hair, wore a leather jacket, played guitar and adored the same obscure band that I did.
When it came time to build a life together, however, we were clearly mismatched. I wanted a traditional family with children; he would have been happy living on a hippie commune. In college, when we wanted to move in together, we thought our parents would be more approving if we got engaged first. So we did, even though we weren’t completely sold on the idea of marriage.
The road to divorce was paved early, by the end of the first year: I had said I wanted us to spend more time together; he accused me of trying to keep him from his hobbies, and told me, in so many words, to “get a life.” Well I did, and, two years later, he wasn’t in it.
When Marriage Succeeds
While the disillusionment model best describes those who divorce, Huston found that another model suits those who stay married, whether or not they are happy: The “enduring dynamics model,” in which partners establish patterns of behavior early and maintain them over time, highlights stability in the relationship–the feature that distinguishes those who remain together from those who eventually split up.
The major difference between the unhappily married couples and their happy counterparts is simply that they have a lower level of satisfaction across the board. Yet, oddly enough, this relative unhappiness by itself does not doom the marriage. “We have a whole group of people who are stable in unhappy marriages and not necessarily dissatisfied,” Huston said. “It’s just a different model of marriage. It’s not that they’re happy about their marriage, it’s just that the discontent doesn’t spill over and spoil the rest of their lives.”
And while all married couples eventually lose a bit of that honeymoon euphoria, Huston notes, those who remain married don’t consider this a crushing blow, but rather a natural transition from “romantic relationship” to “working partnership.” And when conflict does arise, they diffuse it with various constructive coping mechanisms.
Nancy and John, participants in Huston’s study, are a shining example of happy, healthy balance. They met in February 1978 and were immediately attracted to each other. John said Nancy was “fun to be with” and he “could take her anywhere.” Nancy said John always complimented her and liked to do things she enjoyed, things “other guys wouldn’t do.”
During their courtship, they spent a lot of time together, going to dances at their high school and hanging out with friends. They became comfortable with each other and began to openly disclose their opinions and feelings, realizing they had a lot in common and really enjoyed each other’s company.
John paid many surprise visits to Nancy and bought her a number of gifts. Toward the end of the summer, John gave Nancy a charm necklace with a “genuine diamond.” She recalls his saying: “This isn’t your ring, honey, but you’re going to get one.” And she did. The two married on Jan. 17, 1981, nearly three years after they began dating.
The prognosis for this relationship is good. Nancy and John have a “fine romance”–a solid foundation of love and affection, built on honesty and intimacy. A three-year courtship enabled them to paint realistic portraits of one another, lessening the chances of a rude awakening after marriage.
In 1994, when they were last interviewed, Nancy and John were highly satisfied with their marriage. They were very compatible, disagreeing only about politics. Both felt they strongly benefited from the marriage and said they had no desire to leave.
When the seminar ends, I can’t get to a pay phone fast enough. After two rings, the phone is answered. He’s there, of course. Dependable. Predictable. That’s one of the things that first set my husband apart. At the close of one date, he’d lock in the next. “Can I see you tomorrow for lunch?” “Will you have dinner with me next week?”
Unlike the fantasy-quality of my first marriage, I felt a deep sense of comfort and companionship with him, and did not harbor outrageous expectations. We exchanged vows three and a half years later, in August 1998.
There at the convention center, I try to tell my husband about Huston’s study, about the critical first few years, about “enduring dynamics.” It all comes out in a jumble.
“You’re saying we have a good marriage, that we’re not going to get divorced?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say breathlessly, relieved of the burden of explanation.
“Well I’m glad to hear that,” he says, “but I wasn’t really worried.”
Sometimes I wonder: Knowing what I know now, could I have saved my first marriage? Probably not. Huston’s research suggests that the harbingers of disaster were present even before my wedding day.
And he blames our culture. Unlike many other world cultures, he says, Western society makes marriage the key adult relationship, which puts a lot of pressure on people to marry. “People feel they have to find a way to get there and one way is to force it, even if it only works for the time being,” he says.
Our culture is also to blame, Huston says, for perpetuating the myth of storybook romance, which is more likely to doom a marriage than strengthen it. He has few kind words for Hollywood, which brings us unrealistic, unsustainable passion.
So if your new romance starts to resemble a movie script, try to remember: The audience never sees what happens after the credits roll.
RELATED ARTICLE: BLISS OR BUST? TAKE THE MARRIAGE QUIZ
Created for PSYCHOLOGY TODAY by Ted Huston, Ph.D., Shanna Smith, Sylvia Niehuis, Christopher Rasmussen and Paul Miller
Circle the answer that best describes your level of agreement with each of the following statements:
Part 1 our Relationship As Newlyweds
1. As newlyweds, we were constantly touching, kissing, pledging our love or doing sweet things for one another. Strongly disagree (1 pt.) Disagree (2 pts.) Agree (3 pts.) Strongly agree (4 pts.)
2, As newlyweds, how often did you express criticism, anger, annoyance, Impatience or dissatisfaction to one another? Often (1 pt.) Sometimes (2 pts.) Rarely (3 pts.) Almost never (4 pts.)
3. As newlyweds, my partner and I felt we belonged together; we were extremely close and deeply in love. Disagree (1 pt.) Mildly agree (2 pts.) Agree (3 pts.) Strongly agree (4 pts.)
4. As a newlywed, I think one or both of us were confused about our feelings toward each other, or worried that we were not right for each other. Strongly agree (1 pt.) Agree (2 pts.) Disagree (3 pts.) Strongly disagree (4 pts.)
Part 2 Our Relationship By Our Second Anniversary
1. By our second anniversary, we were disappointed that we touched, kissed, pledged our love or did sweet things for one another less often than we had as newlyweds. Strongly disagree (1 pt.) Disagree (2 pts.) Agree (3 pts.) Strongly agree (4 pts.)
2. By our second anniversary, we expressed criticism, anger, annoyance, impatience or dissatisfaction a lot more than we had as newlyweds. Strongly disagree (1 pt.) Disagree (2 pts.) Agree (3 pts.) Strongly agree (4 pts.)
3. By our second anniversary, we felt much less belonging and closeness with one another than we had before. Disagree (1 pt.) Mildly agree (2 pts.) Agree (3 pts.) Strongly agree (4 pts.)
4. By our second anniversary, I felt much more confused or worried about the relationship than I did as a newlywed. Strongly disagree (1 pt.) Disagree (2 pts.) Agree (3 pts.) Strongly agree (4 pts.)
Scoring: Add up the points that correspond to your answers in Part 1. If you scored between 4 and 8, place yourself in Group “A.” If you scored between 9 and 16, place yourself in Group “B.” Now add up the points that correspond to your answers in Part 2. If you scored between 4 and 8, place yourself in Group “C.’ If you scored between 9 and 16, place yourself in Group “D.’
Your Results: Find the type of marriage first by considering your score in part 1 (either A or B) in combination with your score in part 2 (either C or D): If you scored A + C, read “Mixed Blessings”; If you scored A + D, read “Disengaging Duo”; If you scored B + C, read “A Fine Romance”; If you scored B + D, read “Disaffected Lovers.”
The contrast between the giddiness you felt as newlyweds and how you felt later may cause disenchantment. While you and your spouse are still affectionate and in love, there are clouds behind the silver lining. You may bicker and disagree, which, combined with a loss of affection and love in your relationship, could give rise to the first serious doubts about your future together.
Food for Thought: Your relationship may be at risk for eventual divorce. But the pattern of decline early on does not have to continue. Ask yourself: Did we set ourselves up for disappointment with an overly romantic view of marriage? Did we assume it would require little effort to sustain? Did we take each other for granted? Did our disappointment lead to frustration and anger? Will continued bickering erode the love we have left?
A Fine Romance You have a highly affectionate, loving and harmonious marriage, it may have lost a touch of its initial glow as the mundane realities of marriage have demanded more of your time. But you feel a certain sense of security in the marriage: The relationship’s gifts you unwrapped as newlyweds continue to delight.
Food for Thought: You have the makings of a happy, stable marriage. The cohesive partnership you have maintained bodes well for its future. You will not always be happy–all marriages go through rough periods. But your ability to sustain a healthy marriage over the critical first two years suggests that you and your partner operate together like a thermostat in a home—when it’s chilly, you identify the source of the draft and eliminate it, and when it’s hot, you find ways to circulate cool air.
Your marriage is less enchanting and filled with more conflict and ambivalence than Western society’s romantic ideal, but it has changed little over its first two years, losing only a modicum of “good feeling.” It seems to coast along, showing few signs that it will deteriorate further or become deeply distressed.
Food for Thought: This relationship may not be the romance you envisioned, but it just might serve you well. Many people in such relationships are content, finding their marriage a reassuringly stable foundation that allows them to devote their attention to career, children or other pursuits. Other people in these relationships are slightly dissatisfied, but stay married because the rewards outweigh the drawbacks. A few people may eventually leave such marriages in search of a “fine romance.”
Disengaging Duo You and your mate are not overly affectionate and frequently express displeasure with one another. In contrast to those in a marriage of “mixed blessings,” the love you once felt diminished soon after the wedding, and you became more ambivalent about the relationship. You may already have a sense that your relationship is on shaky ground.
Food for Thought: Your relationship may be in immediate trouble. You may have married hoping that problems in the relationship would go away after the wedding, but they didn’t. Ask yourself: Did I see our problems coming while we were dating? Did I think they would dissolve with marriage? What kinds of changes would I need to see in my partner in order to be happy? How likely are they to occur? How bad would things have to get before the marriage would no longer be worthwhile?
READ MORE ABOUT IT
When Love Dies: The Process of Marital Disaffection, Karen Kayser, Ph.D. (Guildford Press, 1993)
Fighting For Your Marriage: Positive Steps For Preventing Divorce and Preserving A Lasting Love, H. Markman, S. Stanley and S. Blumberg (Jossey-Bass, 1994)
Aviva Patz is the executive editor of PSYCHOLOGY TODAY.
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