Will Your Marriage Last?
What social scientists have learned from putting couples under the microscope.
My husband, John, and I lived together for four years before we got engaged. He’s Filipino; I’m white. And we have a two-year-old. Can you guess which of these things makes us more likely to divorce than other couples?
The answer: all of the above.
People who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce than those who move in together after their engagement. Mixed-race couples don’t fare as well as couples of the same race or ethnicity: According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 41 percent of couples who intermarry will divorce before the ten-year mark. And as for kids, let’s just say the research doesn’t paint a rosy picture of marriage post-baby.
Psychologists have been trying for decades to figure out why some marriages last while others fail. It’s easy to be cynical about marriage. With the conventional wisdom saying about half of all couples will divorce, it’s hard to go to a wedding without wondering if a couple will make it. At age 36, I already know several people who split up within a few years of getting married. I’ve got bets on others.
The secret to long-lasting relationships is particularly confounding considering that most couples start in the same place: madly in love. What happens after the wedding that alters the course of so many relationships?
It turns out that the initial years of marriage are particularly telling. Once the honeymoon is over and the fairy dust settles, the work of merging two lives begins. Talking gas bills and car payments can kill the mood. Sometimes one partner might feel disappointed in the relationship, and bad habits can form.
“The first two years are supposed to be a honeymoon,” says Barry McCarthy, a professor of psychology at American University and coauthor of Sexual Awareness: Your Guide to Healthy Couple Sexuality. “But research says they’re quite difficult. You’re figuring out sexually and emotionally how to be a couple.”
Most divorces happen within the first several years of marriage in part because, McCarthy says, “many couples just can’t figure these things out and they end up fighting all of the time.” Those who make it through aren’t exactly in the clear—racking up marital years isn’t the same as having a happy and fulfilling marriage.
Couples who have social networks of couple friends have higher levels of marital happiness.
Those with a college degree are 66 percent less likely to divorce.
Couples with kids are more likely to experience a sudden drop in marital happiness, but they may recover as their kids get older.
Couples with no money at the beginning of a three-year period were 70 percent likelier to divorce than those with at least $10,000 in assets.
Couples who said money wasn’t important scored higher on marriage stability than couples in which one or both highly valued “money and having lots of things.”
Last December, the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project analyzed a survey of more than 1,400 couples between ages 18 and 46 about the key to a happy marriage. The project found that couples who reported higher levels of generosity toward each other also reported happier marriages. The study defined generosity as “being affectionate and forgiving of your spouse.”
Is the key to marital happiness as easy as making your partner breakfast each morning—or simply saying “I love you”?
“It’s not that simple,” laughs the study’s lead author, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project. But the study did reveal that playing nice improves your sex life, another key factor in a couple’s happiness. Respondents who reported high levels of generosity, commitment, religious faith, and quality time together also said they had increased sexual satisfaction. Interestingly, women were more sexually satisfied when husbands shared the housework. Says Wilcox: “It seems that what happens outside of the bedroom has a lot to do with what happens inside the bedroom.”
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Pioneering marriage researcher John Gottman, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, has been trying to figure out the secret to a happy marriage for decades. He calls one of his most famous theories “the magic ratio.” Gottman believes that couples who have at least five positive interactions for every negative one are more likely to make it.
In 1992, Gottman did a study of 700 newlywed couples, inviting them in for a 15-minute videotaped conversation. He counted how many positive and negative interactions they had during the interview. Based on his 5-to-1 ratio, he predicted which couples would be together ten years later and which would be divorced. In a 2002 follow-up study, his findings were astounding: He had a 94-percent accuracy rate, which means he could predict marital happiness for strangers in a quarter of an hour.
A clue to how happy your marriage is may lie in the way you talk about it. Last year, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that middle-aged and older couples who used words such as “we,” “our,” and “us” tended to treat each other better and were better at resolving conflicts. Couples who emphasized their “separateness”—using pronouns such as “I,” “me,” and “you”—tended to be less happy.
Do you have couple friends? If not, you should get some. Professor Geoffrey Greif and associate professor Kathleen Holtz Deal of the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work recently authored a book, Two Plus Two: Couples and Their Couple Friendships. After interviewing 123 couples, they found that those who had a social network of couple friends reported higher levels of marital happiness. The researchers said that having couple friends promotes marital satisfaction because it increases attraction to each other and allows couples to observe how other couples interact and resolve differences.
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Everyone brings some baggage to a relationship, but a parent’s divorce greatly affects marital quality. If your parents split up when you were a kid, you have a 50-percent greater chance of getting divorced yourself. If you and your spouse are both children of divorce, you have a 200-percent higher risk of divorce, says Nicholas Wolfinger, an associate professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah and author of a book called Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in Their Own Marriages.
Children of divorce are also more likely to live together before marriage or to marry young—both of which increase the chance of divorce. You’d think cohabiting partners would have lower divorce rates—isn’t the whole point of moving in together to test the waters, to give couples a chance to try each other on as life partners?
Apparently, it doesn’t work. Researchers say that people who live together before getting engaged tend to “slide” into a lifelong commitment rather than choose it. In other words, they’ve already got the house, the patio furniture, and someone to split the bills with—why wouldn’t they take the next step?
Experts say this inertia doesn’t bode well for lasting happiness. Scott Stanley, a psychologist at the University of Denver, found that 19 percent of couples who lived together before their engagement suggested divorce at least once over the course of the five-year study, compared with only 10 percent who moved in together after the big day.
But cohabitation doesn’t always spell doom: Couples who move in together after their engagement—but before marriage—appear to fare just as well as couples who moved in together after saying “I do.”
As for having kids, the jury is out on whether they strain or enrich a marriage. “There’s a dip in marital happiness after the birth of your first child,” says the Marriage Project’s W. Bradford Wilcox. A study by Texas A&M University and the University of Denver of 218 couples in their mid-twenties—roughly two-thirds of whom welcomed their first child within eight years of marrying and a third of whom had no children—showed that couples with kids were less happy than childless couples. While the study showed that overall marital happiness decreased over time for both those with kids and those without, the couples with children reported a more sudden drop in marital dissatisfaction; the childless couples’ happiness levels decreased more slowly over time.
Still, Wilcox says that couples with kids often rebound and report higher levels of happiness later in life. Longitudinal data show that marital satisfaction increases as children get older and leave home. In other words, while individuals love their children and glean much happiness from them, their marriages benefit when their kids enter college and they’re able to spend more quality time together.
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There doesn’t seem to be a magic age for getting married. Even so, couples who wed later tend to report higher levels of education, leading to greater affluence and greater marital satisfaction. If you have a college degree, you’re 66 percent less likely to divorce. “It’s partly because people with college degrees make more money and do better in the professional world,” says Wilcox, “but it’s also because many have the social skills needed to navigate married life more successfully.”
Money makes a big difference in a couple’s life. Research cited in a 2009 article by Jeffrey Drew of the National Marriage Project found that wives with higher incomes and assets are happier in their marriages; they’re also less likely to get a divorce. Couples who reported fighting about money once a week were 30 percent more likely to split up than couples who argued about finances a few times a month. And couples with no assets at the beginning of a three-year period were 70 percent likelier to divorce than couples with at least $10,000 in assets.
But while having money can help, it’s not a good sign if either spouse is too motivated by it. A Brigham Young University study of 1,734 married couples found that those who said money wasn’t important scored 10 to 15 percent better on marriage stability than couples in which one or both said they highly valued “having money and lots of things.”
“Couples where both spouses are materialistic were worse off on nearly every measure we looked at,” says Jason Carroll, a BYU professor of family life.
A second study cited in Drew’s National Marriage Project article found that perceptions of how well one’s spouse handles money can also cause strain. If you feel your husband or wife doesn’t handle money well, you probably have a lower level of marital happiness. “In one study, feeling that one’s spouse spent money foolishly increased the likelihood of divorce by 45 percent for both men and women. Only extramarital affairs and alcohol/drug abuse were stronger predictors of divorce,” Drew writes.
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What do happy couples have in common?
They respect each other. They don’t nitpick, criticize, or put each other down. And yes, they go out of their way to be nice. Says Wilcox: “Being an affectionate and engaging spouse is going to make both of you happier.”
My husband and I may be of different ethnicities and we may have a kid, but I think we’re going to make it. Here’s why: When my feet are cold in winter, he’ll always let me warm them up on his legs. I kiss him hello every day when he gets home. He encourages me to take time for myself when he sees I’m feeling drained. In other words, we’re kind to each other—and as the studies show, that counts for a lot.
Former Washingtonian senior writer Brooke Lea Foster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.