Most adults want their love relationships to result in marriage. However, U. S. residents are in less of a hurry to achieve this goal; the median age at first marriage for adults in the United States has been rising for several decades. As you can see in Figure 11.5, between 1970 and 2006, the median age
1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2006
FIGURE 11.5 Median age at first marriage in the United States has increased more for women than for men since 1970.
Source: From U. S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, March and Annual Social and Economic Supplements, 2006 and earlier.
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for first marriage rose nearly 4 years for both men and women, from roughly 23 to 27.5 for men, and from roughly 21 to 25.5 for women (U. S. Census Bureau, 2008b). This trend is not bad; women under age 20 at the time they are first married are three times more likely to end up divorced than women who first marry in their 20s, and six times more likely to end up divorced than first-time wives in their 30s (U. S. Census Bureau, 2008a). Let’s explore age and other factors that keep marriages going strong over time.
Being married has benefits besides providing companionship. For example, being married encourages healthy behaviors for couples of all ages (Schone & Weinick, 1998), and married people tend to have greater average longevity (U. S. Census Bureau, 2008a).
Factors Influencing Marital Success. Why do some marriages succeed? Answer the questions in Table 11.1 and you may get some good ideas. Take time to think about your responses and why you answered the way you did. Your responses are the result of many factors, including the socialization you had about marriage. As we explore the research data about marital satisfaction, think about these and other widely held beliefs about marriage.
Although marriages, like other relationships, differ from one another, some important predictors of future success can be identified. One key factor in enduring marriages is the relative maturity of the two partners at the time they are married. In general, the younger the partners are, the lower the odds that the marriage will last, especially when the people are in their teens or early 20s (U. S. Bureau of the Census, 2008). In part, the age issue relates to Erikson’s (1982) belief that intimacy cannot be achieved until after one’s identity is established (see Chapter 9). Other reasons that increase or decrease the likelihood that a marriage will last include financial security and pregnancy at the time of the marriage.
A second important predictor of successful marriage is homogamy, or the similarity of values and interests a couple shares. As we saw in relation to choosing a mate, the extent to which the partners share similar values, goals, attitudes, socioeconomic status, and ethnic background increases the likelihood that their relationship will succeed.
A third factor in predicting marital success is a feeling that the relationship is equal. According to exchange theory, marriage is based on each partner contributing something to the relationship that the other would be hard-pressed to provide. Satisfying and happy marriages result when both partners perceive that there is a fair exchange, or equity, in all the dimensions of the relationship. Problems achieving such equity can arise because of the competing demands of work and family (see Chapter 12).
The Developmental Course of Marital Satisfaction. Few
sights are happier than a couple on their wedding day; newlyweds are at the peak of marital bliss. The beliefs people bring into a marriage (which you identified in Table 11.1 in the quiz you took) influence how satisfied they will be as the marriage develops. As you might suspect, a couple’s feelings change over time. Like any relationship, marriage has its peaks and valleys.
Much research has been conducted on marital satisfaction across adulthood. Research shows that for most couples overall marital satisfaction is highest at the beginning of the marriage, falls until the children begin leaving home, and rises again in later life, and that this pattern holds for both married and never-married cohabiting couples (see Figure 11.6; Hansen, Moum, & Shapiro, 2007). However, for some couples, satisfaction never rebounds and remains low; in essence, they have become emotionally divorced.
Overall, marital satisfaction ebbs and flows over time. The pattern of a particular marriage over the years is determined by the nature of the dependence of each spouse on the other. When dependence is mutual and about equal, the marriage is strong and close. When the dependence of one partner is much higher than that of the other, however, the marriage is likely to be characterized by stress and conflict. Changes in individual lives over adulthood shift the balance of dependence from one partner to the other; for example, one partner may go back to school, become ill, or lose status. Learning how to deal with these changes is the secret to long and happy marriages.
Beliefs about Marriage
Why do some marriages succeed? Answer the following questions and you may get some good ideas.
1. A husband’s marital satisfaction is usually lower if his wife is employed full time than if she is a full-time homemaker.
2. Marriages that last many years almost always have a higher level of satisfaction than marriages that last only a few years.
3. In most marriages, having a child improves marital satisfaction for both spouses.
4. The best single predictor of marital satisfaction is the quality of the couple’s sex life.
5. Overall, married women are physically healthier than married men.
6. African American women are happier in marriage than African American men.
7. Marital satisfaction for a wife is usually lower if she is employed full time than if she is a full-time homemaker.
8. “If my spouse loves me, he/she should instinctively know what I want and need to make me happy”
9. In a marriage in which the wife is employed full time, the husband usually shares equally in the housekeeping tasks.
10. “No matter how I behave, my spouse should love me because he/she is my spouse.”
11. Anglo husbands spend more time on household work than do Latino husbands.
12. Husbands usually make more lifestyle adjustments in marriage than do wives.
13. “I can change my spouse by pointing out his/her inadequacies and bad habits.”
14. The more a spouse discloses positive and negative information to his/her partner, the greater the marital satisfaction of both partners.
15. For most couples, maintaining romantic love is the key to marital happiness over the life span.
All the items are false. The more “True” responses you gave, the greater your belief in stereotypes about marriage.
Source: From Benokraitis (1999, p. 235).
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FIGURE 11.6 Marital satisfaction is highest early on and in later life, dropping during the childraising years.
Source: Kail, R., & Cavanaugh, J. C. (2010). Human development: A life-span view (5th ed., p. 412). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
The fact that marital satisfaction has a general downward trend but varies widely across couplesled Karney and Bradbury (1995) to propose a vulnerability-stress-adaptation model of marriage. This model sees marital quality as a dynamic process resulting from the couple’s ability to handle stressful events in the context of their particular vulnerabilities and resources. For example, as a couple’s ability to adapt to stressful situations gets better over time, the quality of the marriage probably will improve.
The Early Years Marriages are most intense in their early days. When husbands and wives share many activities and are open to new experiences together, bliss results (Olson & McCubbin, 1983). Discussing financial matters honestly is a key to bliss, as many newly married couples experience their first marital stresses around money issues (Parkman, 2007). When there is marital conflict, the intensity of the early phase may create considerable unhappiness (Faulkner, Davey, & Davey, 2005).
Early in a marriage, the couple must learn to adjust to the different perceptions and expectations each person has for the other. Many wives tend to be more concerned than their husbands with keeping close ties with their friends. Research indicates that men and women both recognize and admit when
problems occur in their marriage (Moynehan & Adams, 2007). The couple must also learn to handle confrontation. Indeed, learning effective strategies for resolving conflict is an essential component of a strong marriage, as these strategies provide ways for couples to discuss their problems maturely.
Early in a marriage, couples tend to have global adoration for their spouse regarding the spouse’s qualities (Neff & Karney, 2005). For wives, but not for husbands, more accurate specific perceptions of what their spouses are really like were associated with more supportive behaviors, feelings of control in the marriage, and a decreased risk of divorce. Thus, for women, love grounded in accurate perceptions of a spouse’s qualities appears to be stronger than love that is “blind” to a spouse’s true qualities.
As couples settle into a routine, marital satisfaction tends to decline (Lamanna & Riedmann, 2003). Researchers have shown for many years that the primary reason for this drop for most couples is the birth of children (Carstensen et al., 1996). But it’s not just a matter of having a child. The temperament of the child matters, with fussier babies creating more marital problems (Greving, 2007; Meijer & van den Wittenboer, 2007). Parenthood also means having substantially less time to devote to the marriage. Most couples are ecstatic over having their
first child, a tangible product of their love for each other. But soon the reality of child care sets in, with 2:00 a. m. feedings, diaper changing, and the like, not to mention the long-term financial obligations that will continue at least until the child becomes an adult. Both African American and European American couples report an increase in conflict after the birth of their first child (Crohan, 1996).
However, using the birth of a child as the explanation of the drop in marital satisfaction is much too simplistic, as child-free couples also experience a decline in marital satisfaction (Hansen et al., 2007). It appears that a decline in overall marital satisfaction over time is a common developmental phenomenon, even for couples who choose to remain childless (Clements & Markman, 1996). Additionally, couples without children due to infertility face the stress associated with the inability to have children, which exacerbates existing stresses in the relationship and can lower marital satisfaction (Spector, 2004). Longitudinal research indicates that disillusionment, as demonstrated by a decline in feeling in love, in demonstrations of affection, and in the feeling that one’s spouse is responsive, as well as an increase in feelings of ambivalence, is a key predictor of marital dissatisfaction (Huston et al., 2001).
Marriage at Midlife For most couples marital satisfaction improves after the children leave, a state called the empty nest. Midlife brings both challenges and opportunities for marriages (Karasu & Karasu, 2005). Some use the launching of children to rediscover each other, and marital satisfaction rebounds.
For some middle-aged couples, however, marital satisfaction continues to be low. They may have grown apart but continue to live together, a situation sometimes referred to as married singles (Lamanna & Riedmann, 2003). In essence, they have become emotionally divorced and live more as housemates than as a married couple; for these couples, spending more time together is not a welcome change. Research shows that marital dissatisfaction in midlife is a process that develops over a long period of time and is not spontaneous (Rokach, Cohen, & Dreman, 2004).
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Older Couples Marital satisfaction is fairly high in older couples, who tend to describe their partner in more positive terms than do middle-aged married partners (Henry, Berg, Smith, & Florsheim, 2007). However, satisfaction in long-term marriages—that is, marriages of 40 years or more—is a complex issue. In general, marital satisfaction among older couples increases shortly after retirement but then decreases with health problems and advancing age (Miller et al., 1997). The level of satisfaction in these marriages appears to be unrelated to the amount of past or present sexual interest or sexual activity, but it is positively related to the degree of social engagement such as interaction with friends (Bennett, 2005). In keeping with the married-singles concept, many older couples have simply developed detached, contented styles (Connidis, 2001; Lamanna & Riedmann, 2003).
Older married couples show several specific characteristics (O’Rourke & Cappeliez, 2005). Many older couples show a selective memory regarding the occurrence of negative events and perceptions of their partner. Older couples have a reduced potential for marital conflict and greater potential for pleasure, are more likely to be similar in terms of mental and physical health, and show fewer gender differences in sources of pleasure. In short, most older married couples have developed adaptive ways to avoid conflict and have grown more alike. In general, marital satisfaction among older couples remains high until health problems begin to interfere with the relationship (Connidis, 2001).
Being married in late life has several benefits. A study of 9,333 European Americans, African Americans, and Latino Americans showed that marriage helps people deal better with chronic illness, functional problems, and disabilities (Pienta, Hayward, & Jenkins, 2000). The division of household chores becomes more egalitarian after the husband retires than it was when the husband was employed, irrespective of whether the wife was working outside the home (Kulik, 2001a, 2001b).
Keeping Marriages Happy. Although no two marriages are exactly the same, couples must be flexible and adaptable. Couples who have been happily married for many years show an ability to roll with the punches and to adapt to changing circumstances
in the relationship. For example, a serious problem of one spouse may not be detrimental to the relationship and may even make the bond stronger. Likewise, couples’ expectations about marriage change over time, gradually becoming more congruent (Weishaus & Field, 1988), with intimacy and spousal support being key factors (Patrick, Sells, Giordano, & Tollerud, 2007). In contrast, the physical illness of one spouse almost invariably affects marital quality negatively, even after other factors such as work stress, education, and income are considered (Wickrama et al., 1997).
How well couples communicate their thoughts, actions, and feelings to each other largely determines the level of conflict couples experience and, by extension, how happy they are likely to be over the long term (Notarius, 1996; Patrick et al., 2007). Increasing demands from work and family put enormous pressures on a marriage (Rogers & Amato, 1997). It appears that key factors underlying marital satisfaction do not differ between European American and African American couples (Hairston,
2001) . It takes a great deal of love, humor, and perseverance to stay happily married a long time. But it can be done, providing couples work at these seven key things (Donatelle & Davis, 1997; Enright, Gassin, & Wu, 1992; Knapp & Taylor, 1994):
• Make time for your relationship.
• Express your love to your spouse.
• Be there in times of need.
• Communicate constructively and positively about problems in the relationship.
• Be interested in your spouse’s life.
• Confide in your spouse.
• Forgive minor offenses, and try to understand major ones.
In sum, people who have been happily married for a long time act much like Bobbie and Jack, a couple married more than 60 years, who point to open and honest communication with each other, a desire to support each other no matter what, and an undying commitment to each other. Their advice to couples on how to help ensure their own golden anniversary? “Never go to sleep angry at your partner.” Excellent advice.
Caring for a Partner. When couples pledge their love to each other “in sickness and in health,” most envision the sickness part to be no worse than an illness lasting a few weeks. That may be the case for many couples, but for some the illness they experience severely tests their pledge.
Francine and Ron are one such couple. After 42 years of mainly good times together, Ron was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s disease. When first contacted by staff at the local chapter of a caregiver support organization, Francine had been caring for Ron for 6 years. “At times it’s very hard, especially when he looks at me and doesn’t have any idea who I am. Imagine, after all these years, not to recognize me. But I love him, and I know that he would do the same for me. But, to be perfectly honest, we’re not the same couple we once were. We’re just not as close; I guess we really can’t be.”
Taking care of a spouse is one way that many couples demonstrate the love they have for each other.
Francine and Ron are typical of couples in which one partner cares for the other. Caring for a chronically ill partner presents different challenges than caring for a chronically ill parent. The partner caregiver assumes the new role after decades of shared responsibilities. Often without warning, the division of labor that had worked for years must be readjusted. Such change inevitably puts stress on the relationship (Cavanaugh & Kinney, 1994). This is especially true in cases involving Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias because of the cognitive and behavioral consequences of the disease, but it is also the case in diseases such as AIDS. Caregiving challenges are felt by partner caregivers in any type of long-term, committed relationship.
Studies of spousal caregivers of persons with Alzheimer’s disease show that marital satisfaction is much lower than for healthy couples (Cavanaugh & Kinney, 1994; Kinney et al., 1993). Spousal caregivers report a loss of companionship and intimacy over the course of caregiving, but also more rewards than adult child caregivers (Raschick & Ingersoll – Dayton, 2004). Marital satisfaction is also an important predictor of spousal caregivers’ reports of depressive symptoms; the better the perceived quality of the marriage, the fewer symptoms caregivers report (Kinney et al., 1993), a finding that holds across European American and African American spousal caregivers (Parker, 2008). Sadly, caring for a partner often leads the caregiver to question the meaningfulness of life (Wells & Kendig, 1997).
Most partner caregivers are forced to respond to an environmental challenge that they did not choose—their partner’s illness. They adopt the caregiver role out of necessity. Once they adopt the role, caregivers assess their ability to carry out the duties required. Although evidence about the mediating role of caregivers’ appraisal of stressors is unclear, interventions that help improve the functional level of the ill partner generally improve the caregiving partner’s situation (Van Den Wijngaart, Vernooij-Dassen, & Felling, 2007). However, spousal caregivers do not always remember their major hassles accurately over time; in one study, caregivers remembered only about two thirds of their major hassles after a one-month delay (Cavanaugh &
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Kinney, 1998). This finding points out that health care professionals should not rely exclusively on partner caregivers’ reports about the caregiving situation in making diagnostic judgments.
The importance of feeling competent as a partner caregiver fits with the docility component of the competence-environmental press model presented earlier in this chapter. Caregivers attempt to balance their perceived competence with the environmental demands of caregiving. Perceived competence allows them to be proactive rather than merely reactive (and docile), which gives them a better chance to optimize their situation.
Even in the best of committed relationships, providing full-time care for a partner is both very stressful and rewarding in terms of the marital relationship (Baek, 2005). Coping with a wife, for example, who may not remember her husband’s name, who may act strangely, and who has a chronic and fatal disease presents serious challenges even to the happiest of couples. Yet even in that situation, the caregiving husband may experience no change in marital happiness despite the changes in his wife due to the disease.