Marriage isn’t what it used to be. Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. To avoid that outcome, many couples decide to cohabit for a year or more to test their compatibility for marriage. And yet, these couples are just as likely to divorce as those who didn’t cohabit first eventually.
At the same time, marriage remains ideal for many people, and about 90 percent of adults will marry at some point in their lives. Are we then doomed by biological urges and societal pressures to enter into committed relationships that are bound to make us unhappy?
University of California, Los Angeles psychologists Benjamin Karney and Thomas Bradbury doubted that’s the case, arguing instead that marriage remains a satisfying lifestyle for the vast majority of couples. In a recent article they published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, they reviewed research that challenges three commonly held assumptions about the nature of marriage.
False Belief 1: Marital Satisfaction Inevitably Declines Over Time
One of the most consistent findings in relationship science has been the inevitable decline in marital satisfaction over the years. This “fact” is presented even in introductory psychology textbooks, and I’ve taught it to my students for many years. The best we can hope for is to settle into a comfortable if not exciting life together, but many couples won’t even manage that—or so goes the received wisdom.
This finding comes from longitudinal studies in which couples’ relationship satisfaction is measured multiple times over several years. When researchers computed an average each time, they got a falling slope of relationship satisfaction throughout the study.
However, Karney and Bradbury argued, a more refined analysis of the data challenges this assumption. If we compare the trajectories of couples who start their marriages at a relatively high level of satisfaction with those whose starting level is relatively low, we see a different picture. Those who begin high tend to remain high over the years, while those who create low tend to plummet rapidly, pulling the average down for everyone.
But then, how do we explain the high divorce rate? Certainly, unhappy couples are at increased risk of divorce, but Karney and Bradbury pointed out that even happy couples can end up getting divorced. This suggests that a sudden major event, such as infidelity, can shake the foundation of what had been a satisfying marriage.
False Belief 2: Poor Communication Causes Distress in Marriage
It’s a general belief among researchers and practitioners alike that negative communication styles are at the root of many unhappy marriages. Thus, one common goal of marital therapy is to teach couples more effective communication styles. In defining what we mean by negative communication patterns, most psychologists rely on noted relationship scientist John Gottman’s “four horses of the apocalypse”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
According to Karney and Bradbury, however, recent research findings challenged this assumption. First, negative communication styles don’t always lead to marital problems. Sometimes, marital issues come first, and poor communication results from frustrated attempts to solve the problem.
Other times, negative communication patterns can benefit couples in the long run, even though it is associated with high levels of distress in the short term. This is especially true for couples who are dealing with severe problems like substance abuse. In such cases, the “four horsemen” may be the only way to communicate the severity of the issue to the offending partner.
False Belief 2 is also based on the assumption that people can change their communication style. While there’s plenty of evidence that couples can learn to use positive communication styles during the period of therapy, follow-up studies show that most couples revert to their old habits within months or years after therapy has ended. One consistent finding, though, is that reducing negativity is generally more effective in the long run than increasing positivity.
False Belief 3: Findings From White Affluent Couples Apply to All Relationships
Over the last half-century, relationships have been studied scientifically, and almost all research participants have been White, well-educated, middle-class, heterosexual couples. We now know a lot about the dynamics of such relationships and how to help such couples in distress. However, we need to be careful in assuming that what we’ve learned from these couples can be applied to minority or low-income couples.
As a case in point, Karney and Bradbury referred to the Strengthening Healthy Marriages Initiative, a government-funded program to provide low-income couples with communication skills training. Despite the considerable cost of the program, trained couples showed no long-term improvements in their marriage compared to those who received no training. Instead, improving collaborative problem-solving skills were shown to be more effective, regardless of communication style.
While more research is needed on the dynamics of racial and sexual minority marriages, socioeconomic status (SES) has significantly influenced relationship outcomes. For example, an unexpected doctor’s bill or car repair may be an uncomfortable financial hit for a middle-class family. Still, it can spell financial ruin, even homelessness, for low-income couples. Low SES families experience more and more significant external stresses in their lives than more affluent couples, who can muster the wherewithal to deal with these.
In other words, good communication skills mean nothing if there’s no food on the table or roof over your head. What low-income couples need, then, is not therapy but rather the means to overcome poverty.
To summarize, Karney and Bradbury pointed out that behaviors don’t “speak for themselves.” That is, you can’t predict the outcome of a particular interaction style without first understanding the context in which it takes place. Some couples with “negative” communication styles seem pretty happy in their marriages, while others mask their misery with a façade of pleasant conversation. Then, the therapist’s goal is to help the couple find a way of interacting that works for them.