Should Marital Partners Hang Out More? An Empirical Discussion

Although it is arguably the most common form of joint recreation, marital dating, the practice of continued dating of one’s spouse beyond the matrimonial ceremony, is perhaps one of the least understood facets of marital interaction. This is surprising in that many clergy and marital counselors, as well as parents, authors, and friends, routinely advocate engaging in planned positive time (i.e., dating) to couples experiencing marital disharmony (e.g., Brown, 1991; Duncan, 2000). While dating behavior itself has been studied significantly in the premarital domain, it is difficult to understand to what degree this literature generalizes to dating one’s spouse, as many of the parameters are different (Cere, 2000; Christopher & Sprecher, 2000; Duemmler & Kobak, 2001; Glenn & Marquardt, 2001). For example, dating prior to marriage often does not involve joint responsibility for the care of children, a joint concern for the family budget, and presumably has different emotional dynamics. For instance, as non-married daters are more likely to suffer relational dissolution than married individuals, one may be more aware of one’s behavior on a premarital date. In contrast, marital partners bring a relationship history and interaction pattern to the date that may potentially allow for more comfort in addressing issues or speaking candidly.

Although some ambitious prior attempts to study marital dating are found in the literature, these actually focused on a different yet closely related marital domain under the categorical label of “leisure.” Perhaps Orthner (1976; 1975) best represents this area with his work on marital leisure activity patterns. Orthner’s main contention was that the few studies which did exist prior to his work on leisure reviewed marital leisure only qualitatively. Orthner set out to test the empirical assumptions and interactions of leisure activity within the marital context. Specifically, he postulated that leisure activities might be categorized into three distinct groupings: individual, joint, and parallel activities.

Individual activities included those that required no communication or interaction with others (e.g., camping). Conversely, joint activities required excessive interaction and communication (e.g., playing cards). Finally, parallel activities are those wherein someone operates independently within a group setting (e.g., going to a movie theater). Participants included 442 married (although not necessarily to someone else in the study) upper-middle class community members. All participants were asked to endorse items on a lengthy questionnaire developed by Orthner which consisted of 96 activities pre-classified by experts as either independent, parallel, or joint leisure activities. Suspecting lifespan variables might interact with the effect of leisure on marital satisfaction, Orthner also divided the sample into life-phase groups with cutoffs at 5, 11, 17, and 23 years into the marriage. He failed to give a well developed rationale for the cutoffs, other than to indicate “it was assumed that intervals of six years would provide indications as to perceptions and needs in early marriage, the periods of family expansion and contraction, and the middle years of marriage” (Orthner, 1975, p.95).

Using bivariate correlational analyses, Orthner (1975) found that couples who engaged in either parallel or joint activities did tend to have more positive marriages. In contrast, couples who engaged in independent leisure activities tended to report worse marital functioning. Finally, from a qualitative inspection of the data, Orthner postulated that the lifespan variable did interact with marital leisure in terms of marital satisfaction, and that gender also differentiated the efficacy of leisure activity with regard to marital satisfaction. For example, given the bivariate correlations for the effect of dating on marital satisfaction (across gender) were significant at only two phases, and not significant across the three other phases, Orthner felt that lifespan variables, such as launching of children, disenchantment with spouse, and other phenomena likely act as facilitative or suppressive variables regarding the potency of leisure time on marital satisfaction. He also noted similar differential gender effects for dating across the life span (e.g., joint dating was positively associated with marital satisfaction in phase V for men, but not women). His theoretical explanations for such findings were at best speculative, and given the singular design of his study, as well as the correlational and self-report nature of the data, the factors influencing the outcome are unclear.

Consistent with this criticism, Holman and Jacquart (1988) contended that while provocative, Orthner’s study had several important methodological flaws. First, they contended that Orthner added error variance to his study by allowing an expert panel to prejudge whether certain activities were independent, parallel, or joint. To correct for this perceived error, Holman and Jacquart allowed the participants themselves to assign which category a given activity was most appropriately clustered within.

Second, they argued that Orthner’s categorization variable regarding lifespan issues was more arbitrary than informed.

-Heath Sommer

For an expanded version of this article and related essays/blogs please visit www.heathsommer.com


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