According to a study published late last year in Family Process, the rapid decline in marital satisfaction following a couple's wedding -- generally thought to be quite normal -- is actually something many couples manage to avoid. The "average" couple experiences a drop because for some couples, satisfaction declines precipitously. But many couples, including the most satisfied, actually remain fairly stable in their marital happiness.
Justin Lavner and Thomas Bradbury at UCLA monitored the progression of marital satisfaction over time among 232 couples, starting soon after the couples were married. They found that couples' progressions in happiness clustered into five different groups. For the three groups who started out the most satisfied, they tended to stay at about the same level (or decline only minimally) in the four years after their wedding day. For the two groups who started married life less satisfied, things tended to get significantly worse with time -- dragging down the population average. As might be expected, among those five groups, divorce rates varied significantly, with the groups whose satisfaction declined over time far more likely to split up.
I asked Lavner a number of questions via email about the study and its implications. The following has been edited for length and clarity. My questions are in bold, and Lavner's responses are in plain text.
BC: How would you describe your findings in plain language, and what surprised you the most?
JL: We set out to examine one of the most often-cited "facts" about marriage -- that satisfaction declines as marriage goes on. We wondered whether this average pattern obscured different patterns that couples experience, and if so, what factors characterized people who had different patterns and how these patterns related to later divorce rates.
We found that although the average pattern is indeed one of declining satisfaction, there are a few different patterns that better characterize newlyweds' marriages over the first four years, including very high, stable trajectories, as well as marriages that start off low in satisfaction and experience large declines very quickly.
Spouses with negative patterns could be distinguished by a range of factors as early as six months into marriage. These included their personality characteristics, how they interacted with their partners during a 10-minute problem-solving discussion, how much aggression they reported, and how much stress they had in their lives. Importantly, these early patterns related to ten-year divorce rates: couples with the worst trajectories had rates of divorce that were more than four times as high as those couples with the best trajectories!
I think the finding that surprised me the most was how early these differences emerged. All of the factors that distinguished between patterns were found at six months into marriage, and some couples were already dissatisfied by then. To me, this suggests that there is a lot more variability in couples early in their relationships than we had previously thought.
BC: I was amazed at the wide disparity in divorce rates for couples based on their marital satisfaction trajectories. How do you think this data can be used to inform and improve treatment for couples at risk of divorce?
JL: We often hear that satisfaction declines as marriage goes on. While that may be true on average, what's really powerful about this data is that they highlight how couples vary widely in the likelihood their relationships will deteriorate, and also give us a better idea of what types of characteristics make couples more likely to experience negative marital trajectories. Using this kind of data, we can be more targeted in our relationship education interventions and direct services toward those couples who need them most.
BC: One of your key findings is that for both husbands and wives, Personality, Stress, Aggression, and Positive Affect distinguished trajectory groups. What does this suggest for identification and treatment of at-risk couples? Do we need multiple forms of therapy geared toward couples with different traits?
JL: These findings indicate that those couples with the greatest distress (and at highest risk of divorce) are characterized by a full range of negative personality traits, experience more stress, report more aggression, and demonstrate lower levels of positive affect. This suggests that focusing on any one factor in treatment will not be sufficient: for example, we cannot focus on negative communication without recognizing how couples' personalities and stressful environments will limit the benefits they can achieve from communication training.
I see this not as evidence that we need multiple forms of therapy geared toward couples with different traits, but more that our interventions need to continue recognizing and addressing the multiple factors that affect couples' lives. My guess is that it is likely to be quite difficult to fully "match" traits with specific forms of therapy to increase success when there are multiple factors at play.
BC: You mention that the data holds some promise for early identification of at-risk couples, but temper this pretty heavily, saying that "it is nonetheless discouraging because it suggests that the task of strengthening these relationships must address a wide range of possible causes for the distress, some of which may be difficult to modify." Could you expand on this?
JL: Not only are the couples who go on to experience distress those with multiple risk factors, but some of these risk factors are likely to be quite stable, particularly their personalities and the stress they encounter. We also identify this risk very early in the relationship, which means that by the time couples present for therapy (which they are notoriously slow to do), these distressing circumstances have likely plagued them for several years.
That said, I'm still optimistic about therapy possibly changing these trajectories and ultimately reducing divorce risk for these couples, particularly if intervention occurs early and addresses multiple factors of couples' lives (as integrative behavioral couple therapy and enhanced models of cognitive behavior therapy now do, among others).
BC: You briefly talk about public policy, suggesting that broad-based marriage promotion programs are not likely to be as successful as programs targeting "the challenging circumstances and chronic stresses likely to impede relationship maintenance." In your ideal world, what would a program designed to reduce divorce look like?
JL: Ideally relationship education programs need to do more to address the complete gestalt of couples' circumstances -- their particular ways of interacting, their personal histories, and how the contexts they live and work in affect their relationships. How this would play out is still an open question, but could include modules such as personality characteristics and emotion regulation strategies, or work stress and how that affects home life, along with stress management techniques. Special attention needs to be given to recruiting and retaining high-risk couples, as this presents the best opportunity to prevent distress and divorce.
I would also like to see more attention given to factors that can promote relationship stability. These findings indicate that many couples have stable levels of satisfaction over time, so how can we help them maintain and even enhance their relationships? For example, Art Aron and his colleagues (Aron, Normon, Aron, McKenna, & Heyman, 2000) have suggested that participating in novel activities can enhance couples' relationship quality. Our programs must do more to promote relationship functioning, in addition to helping prevent deterioration in relationships.
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