Notable Findings From the Last 100 Years of Marital Research

Over the past century, the academic study of marital interactions and dynamics has undergone incredulous change. First seen more as an offshoot to clinical psychiatry, increasing interdisciplinary attention has been given to the everyday and longitudinal effects of couple interaction patterns. Gurman and Fraenkel (2002) describe this metamorphosis in terms of a four stage developmental model. Stage one largely consisted of an atheoretical, almost case study approach to marital therapy and dynamics. Stage two examined marital relations through a psychodynamic lens. Stage three is described as the phase in which marital and family therapy was incorporated within the larger domain of scientific research and design. Finally, stage four, our current phase, consists of refinement, extension, diversification, and further identification of the efforts of thousands of marital and family-oriented psychologists and therapists within the mainstream of psychological theory and experimentation.

Concomitant with this explosion in academic interest regarding marital and family relationships is the exponential growth in both professional journals and publications devoted to marital and family topics (Gottman & Notarius, 2002). The end result is that we have definitive and comprehensive sets of nomological networks attached to such constructs, such as marital communication, marital process, marital structure, and marital status. Building on this expansive literature, many therapists are now beginning to tease apart the ecological relationship between many of the marital phenomena observed in the clinic and the everyday interactions and processes of marital life. The following paragraphs offer a brief review of some of the relevant findings.

Research Findings on Marital Satisfaction

Structural and Extramarital Factors. Some predictors of marital satisfaction have little to do with the interactions of the individuals themselves or with factors the couple can change (such as minority status or physical handicaps). Such extramarital factors can be stressful to the marital relationship, but the presence of such factors does not preclude a long-term, stable marriage. However, they at times may be viewed as potential obstacles for achieving marital satisfaction.

For example, individuals who marry in their mid-twenties, but prior to their mid-thirties seem more likely to have satisfying marriages (Cere, 2000; Kitson, Babri, & Roach, 1985). Further, research has also shown that couples who cohabitate prior to getting married are also at risk for marital dissolution, although some suggest that this may reflect a selection bias or other mediating variables (e.g., religious values) that act as a buffer to marital dissolution (Kurdek & Patrick, 1986; Popenoe & Whitehead, 1999; Wu, 1995).

Couples where both the husband and wife work have been shown in some studies to have higher rates of marital dissatisfaction (Kingston & Nock, 1987). For example Broom (1998) followed single-earner and dual-earner parents from the birth of their first child to 2½ years of age. Findings indicated that marital quality was lower at time two for dual earner couples than single earner couples. Not all studies; however, have yielded findings consistent with these results (e.g., Jones & Fletcher, 1993). Some have postulated that the relationship between dual-earner families and marital distress may be better accounted for by mediating processes, such as partner’s desire to work, or other cognitive or strain issues (for a review see Perry-Jenkins, Repetti, & Crouter, 2000). Further, Wilkie, Ferree, and Ratcliff (1998) attribute the lower marital satisfaction among dual earner families to be a function of less clearly delineated domestic roles, and a gender difference on what constitutes a “fair” division of labor.

The presence of children has also been found to predict lower marital satisfaction.

-Heath Sommer
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