The Success of a Marriage

In a season of fevered nuptials, there is one question that secretly gnaws at many a wedding guest: "Will this couple stay together?" Friends and family inevitably look to a couple's courtship as a template for the marriage itself. After all, we think, if they fight about cleaning an apartment the size of a shoebox, tensions will surely rise when they're dealing with three kids and a white picket fence.

Are such judgments warranted? Yes, according to Ted Huston, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and human ecology at the University of Texas at Austin, who has collected data on 168 marriages since 1979. Huston believes you can learn a lot about a couple's viability from the tempo of their courtship and the sentiments reported while they are dating.

Huston found that men who feel uncertain about the relationship when they are "part of a couple, but not committed to marriage," are destined for a rocky courtship and marriage. But when women flag similar concerns, there is a "sleeper" effect: Problems usually surface after the honeymoon to wreak havoc on the nascent union.

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Huston thinks this is because "women are typically more interested in getting married than men, so they'll process their concerns, but they don't want to do anything to disrupt the courtship." Huston's colleague Cathy Surra, Ph.D., distinguishes between "event-driven" and "relationship-driven" courtships. A relationship that escalates based on external factors that have little to do with a couple's true level of intimacy -- such as moving in together to save on rent -- can be characterized as event-driven. Surra found that couples in such unions report more conflict and greater uncertainty about the relationship. While it's too early to tell whether the event-driven couples in Surra's study are more eager to call it quits, she suspects they will be.

What about length of courtship and its effect on marriage? In Huston's study, happily married couples dated for an average of 25 months. In unions that did not last, there were interesting correlations between the length of the courtship and the length of the marriage. Couples who divorced after two to seven years of marriage, whom Huston terms "early exiters," tended to hold off on exclusively dating one another, and married around the three-year mark. They also brought a low maintenance approach to the relationship: in fact for many, the biggest attempt to rekindle an unpredictable romance was the marriage itself.

Highly romantic courtships don't guarantee living happily ever after, but they are associated with a longer road to divorce. Many marriages in which the partners committed quickly and felt strongly enamored of one another survived to the seven-year mark. These couples dated an average of 18 months, and were engaged in half that time. The men, especially, reported feeling strongly enamored of their partners. Huston speculates that such early bliss makes people stick it out longer when the marriage takes a turn for the worse.

And while falling in love relatively slowly made for less ecstatic newlyweds, Huston found that after two years of marriage, the less ardent lovers were just as happy as those who reported love at first sight.

Huston's research contradicts the prevailing theory of "emergent distress" in marriages: the idea that problems suddenly explode within the confines of an otherwise sunny union, and that a couples' history is no basis for judgment. In fact, says Huston, premarital problems can be likened to a virus that "will surface in the marriage and erode the partners' bond, making the relationship vulnerable."

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