Keeping Marriages Healthy, and Why It’s So Difficult
By Benjamin R. Karney
Benjamin Karney is an Associate Professor of Social Psychology and co-director of the Relationship Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on how marriages change or remain stable over time, and in particular how relationship maintenance is constrained or enhanced by the contexts in which it takes place. Currently this includes research on marriages in the military, funded by the Department of Defense, and marriages in low-income populations, funded by the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development. He received the Gerald R. Miller Award for Early Career Achievement from the International Association for Relationship Research in 2004 and has twice been the recipient of the National Council on Family Relation’s Reuben Hill Research and Theory Award for outstanding contributions to family science. His textbook, Intimate Relationships (coauthored with Thomas Bradbury), will be published by W. W. Norton in January, 2010.
People rarely change their minds about subjects that are important to them. Those who favor gun control today are likely to favor gun control ten years from now, and those who vote for Democratic candidates today are likely to do so throughout their lives.
Yet intimate relationships, and marriages in particular, are the exception to this rule. After two people stand before everyone important to them in the world and publicly declare that they love each other and intend to remain together for the rest of their lives, everything social psychology has learned about the stability of publicly declared opinions suggests that these will be the most stable opinions of all (Festinger, 1957). Yet of course they aren’t. Despite the almost uniform happiness and optimism of newlyweds, most first marriages will end in divorce or permanent separation (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002), and the rate of dissolution for remarriages is even higher (Cherlin, 1992). In most cases, this represents a drastic and unwanted change in a highly valued belief, a change that is emotionally and financially costly to both members of the couple. Even in marriages that remain intact, newlyweds’ initially high levels of marital satisfaction tend to decline over time (VanLaningham, Johnson, & Amato, 2001). How can we account for this change? How is it that marital satisfaction declines so frequently, despite our best efforts to hold on to the positive feelings that motivate marriage in the first place? And what is it those couples that maintain their initial happiness are doing right?
What couples that stay happy are doing right
Understanding how marital satisfaction changes requires first understanding how thoughts and opinions about a marriage and a spouse are structured. Our representations of our partners are complex and multifaceted, consisting of perceptions that range from specific and concrete (e.g., “My spouse makes great pancakes.”) to global and evaluative (e.g., “My spouse is wonderful!”) (John, Hampson, & Goldberg, 1991). Although we are generally motivated to believe the best about our partners, we are not equally motivated or able to protect all our beliefs at all levels of abstraction (e.g., Dunning, 1995). For example, if my partner actually makes terrible pancakes, it is neither possible nor terribly important to believe otherwise. However, if I am to stay happily married, it is desirable to find a way to believe that my spouse is wonderful, and it is possible to do so by identifying and focusing on specific perceptions that might support this global belief.
That is what happy couples do. When couples in the early years of marriage are asked to rate which specific aspects of their relationships are most important to the success of their marriage, they generally point to whatever aspects of their relationship are most positive, and the spouses who demonstrate this tendency most strongly are the ones who are the happiest with their relationships overall (Neff & Karney, 2003). This selection process does not happen only at the beginning of the relationship. Over time, as specific aspects of the relationship change, with some parts becoming more positive and some becoming more negative, the couples who stay happiest overall are the ones who change their beliefs about what is important in their relationships accordingly, deciding that whatever aspects of the marriage have declined must not be so important after all (Neff & Karney, 2003). As a consequence of this continued process of selective attention, global evaluations of a marriage tend to be pretty stable from day to day, as these are the evaluations we are motivated to protect, but perceptions of specific aspects of the marriage tend to vary, more positive on good days and less positive on bad days (McNulty & Karney, 2001).
So what happens to those less positive specific perceptions? They don’t disappear. Even happy newlyweds readily acknowledge that their partners are not perfect in every way (Neff & Karney, 2005). Staying positive about the relationship requires that spouses find ways to integrate their perceptions of specific problems and disappointments within an overall positive view of the marriage. One way spouses can do this is by generating explanations for a spouse’s failings that limit any broader implications those failings may have. For example, if my spouse is distant and withdrawn one evening, deciding that my spouse’s behavior is a symptom of a difficult day at work (rather than a sign of a lack of interest in me) means that the behavior has no global implications for my marriage. For spouses who tend to make these sorts of charitable explanations for their partner’s disappointing or irritating behaviors, global evaluations of the marriage remain relatively stable from day to day even when perceptions of specific aspects of the relationship are fluctuating. For spouses who make less charitable explanations, blaming each other for faults and missteps, specific perceptions and global evaluations are more closely linked, such that the entire marriage seems less rewarding on days when specific elements are bad and the entire marriage seems more rewarding on days when specific elements are good (McNulty & Karney, 2001). In other words, making charitable explanations severs the link between specific negative perceptions and global evaluation of the marriage, leaving the global evaluations more resilient. Couples who are able to acknowledge their partner’s faults while maintaining positive views of their marriage overall have more stable satisfaction over time (Karney & Bradbury, 2000) and they are less likely to divorce in the early years of marriage (Neff & Karney, 2005).
Why is maintaining a relationship so difficult?
If this sort of integration is so beneficial, and if happy newlyweds are already doing it, why do newlyweds’ initially high levels of marital satisfaction nevertheless decline so frequently? The short answer is that making allowances for a spouse’s inevitable shortcomings is difficult, and especially so because marriages and other intimate relationships do not take place in a vacuum. The way that spouses think about and respond to each other is a product of broader forces that affect marriages and intimate relationships. As research identifies more of the processes that contribute to stability and change in marital satisfaction, models of these processes have expanded to account for those broader forces. One framework that attempts this is the Vulnerability-Stress-Adaptation Model of Marriage (i.e., the VSA model; Karney & Bradbury, 1995). Consistent with the research described above, the VSA model (see Figure 1) describes adaptive processes (e.g., solving problems, explaining each other’s behavior) as directly affecting how marital satisfaction changes over time. The model further suggests that these processes themselves are facilitated or constrained by spouse’s enduring vulnerabilities (e.g., cognitive styles, personality traits, childhood experiences) and the stressful circumstances they encounter outside the relationship (e.g., work load, financial strains, health problems).
Figure 1: The Vulnerability-Stress-Adaptation Model of Marriage (Karney & Bradbury, 1995)
Research informed by the VSA model suggests two general reasons why spouses’ attempts to maintain their initially high marital satisfaction may fall short over time. First, some people are naturally better at it than others. For example, when asked to write open-ended paragraphs about issues in their marriages, some spouses recognize that there can be two sides to every conflict and that compromises are possible. Others write only about their own perspective, failing to recognize that other perspectives are possible, let alone valid. When couples who have written these paragraphs are then invited to discuss real marital issues, the ability to recognize multiple perspectives emerges as a significant predictor of the quality of their discussions, as rated by outside observers (Karney & Gauer, in press). Where does this ability come from? A likely source is exposure to more or less successful problem-solving in early childhood. Indeed, wives whose parents divorced when they were children and husbands whose childhood family environments were highly negative also have more difficulty resolving problems together, and are at risk for declines in marital satisfaction as a result (Story, Karney, Lawrence, & Bradbury, 2004).
Second, maintaining a relationship takes energy, and in some contexts that energy is in short supply. It is not enough that couples have the ability to address problems effectively if they lack the capacity to exercise those abilities in the moment. Unfortunately, in the context of stress, even couples who are normally effective at maintaining their relationships may find it difficult to do so. To evaluate this possibility, recently married couples were asked about the kinds of explanations they made for each other’s negative behaviors every six months for the first four years of their marriages (Neff & Karney, 2004). At each assessment, they were also asked to describe and rate the stressful events they had been exposed to outside of the marriage (e.g., stress at work, financial strains, problems with friends or extended family, health issues, etc.) during each six month interval. Controlling for changes in their marital satisfaction over that time, the way spouses understood each other’s negative behaviors at each assessment was significantly associated with the stress they had been under during that period. When stress was low, spouses on average were able to generate more charitable explanations for each other’s negative behaviors, preventing those behaviors from affecting their global feelings about the marriage. But after periods of relatively high stress, the same spouses who had demonstrated this ability were significantly less likely to exercise it, and so were more likely to blame their partners for negative behaviors that they had previously excused.
In addition to highlighting the main effects of enduring vulnerabilities and stressful circumstances on marriage, the VSA model suggests that these relatively independent sources of influence on marital processes interact. That is, among individuals with comparable levels of enduring vulnerabilities, those who encounter stressful circumstances will have an especially hard time maintaining their relationships, and among individuals encountering similar levels of stress, the ones most at risk for relationship problems are the ones who also have numerous enduring vulnerabilities. Survey research that oversampled from low-income and underrepresented communities (Rauer, Karney, Garvan, & Hou, 2008) confirms these sorts of interactions, showing that the associations between relationship satisfaction and any particular constraint on adaptive processes (e.g., mental health problems, financial strain, substance abuse) becomes stronger in the presence of other risk factors.
So, why is it so difficult to maintain the initial positive feelings that characterize most newlywed couples? It is difficult because some disappointments are inevitable in any long-term committed relationship, because some spouses lack the ability to respond to those disappointments effectively, and because even spouses who have the ability may encounter stressful circumstances that prevent them from exercising their abilities when they are most needed.
Implications for helping couples succeed
Dominant approaches to strengthening marriages and other intimate relationships focus almost exclusively on adaptive processes, i.e., teaching couples a set of skills for resolving problems and dealing with disappointments when they arise (e.g., Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg, 1994). The VSA model and the research informed by it suggest that there may be a limit to what these approaches can accomplish. Individuals coping with significant personal vulnerabilities may not be able to change their behaviors. Even couples that know perfectly well how to respond to each other effectively may lose their capacity for effective adaptive processes when under stress. In light of these broader forces affecting relationships, policies that address individual well-being and current sources of stress on family life may be as effective at promoting healthy relationships as any interventions that target relationships directly. Research on the effects of public policies on marital outcomes supports this idea. In Norway, for example, after the government began offering cash incentives to parents that elected to forgo state-subsidized childcare and stay home with their children, divorce rates fell significantly even though the new policy did not target marriages directly (Hardoy & Schøne, 2008). Policies like these that simply make life easier for families and individuals may contribute to an environment that supports marriages and other intimate relationships. In such an environment, more spouses and partners may prove capable of maintaining their relationships on their own.
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