Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

Chart Your Relationship’s Future

Three ways to diagnose, and predict, where your relationship is going

All couples enter into the beginning of a long-term, committed relationship, with the goal of seeing the relationship continue over time. We all know, however, that the future course of even the best new relationship isn’t all that easy to envision.  Whether it’s a brand-new or more longstanding marriage or cohabiting relationship, though, it may be possible for you to take a peek into its future and see where it might be heading.

University of Texas family psychologist Ted Huston has studied the factors that predict whether married couples will stay together or divorce. His 15-year follow-up of married couples (Huston et al., 2001) provided valuable insights  into the factors that predict marital happiness, the impact of parenthood on married couples, gender differences in interpersonal styles and, importantly, the factors that predict whether or not a couple will divorce. Through this research, Huston identified three pathways of marital development which, for some couples, lead to divorce.  Knowing pathway your relationship is on might help you intervene, or seek help, if you’re on a pathway that could lead to its ending.

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Many people assume that all couples start out happy together, and that those who break up or divorce do so because their distress builds up over the months or years.   This type of dysfunctional relationship fits the emergent distress model.  The reason their distress builds is because they don’t know how to cope with the inevitable arguments that occur when people live together.  Instead of resolving their problems with such adaptive tactics as communicating openly and working out compromises, they become defensive, withdraw, stonewall and become out and out vicious toward each other.  It’s not clear whether their distress causes these dysfunctional coping methods or whether their ineffective ways of handling problems leads to distress. The upshot is that these couples become increasingly unhappy over time until they finally decide to end things entirely.  

Like couples who experience emergent distress, those who fit the disillusionment model start out happy and in love when they first tie the knot.  Over time, they gradually fall out of love and start to develop mixed feelings about their partner.  Part of what happens with these couples is that they take each other for granted.  They become less and less interested in seeking their partner’s love and approval than they were at the beginning, and as the patina fades, they drift further and further apart.

Both the emergent distress and disillusionment models assume that couples start out in wedded, or at least relationship, bliss. They are hopeful and optimistic that their relationship will work out and it is only after the months or years go by that they find themselves arguing constantly or just losing interest. In the third type of relationship, the enduring dynamics model, partners don’t change over time in their relationship dynamics. The seeds of their happiness, or unhappiness, are present at the very beginning.  They either get along well with each other and resolve conflict easily, or they don’t.  Huston and his fellow marital researchers could identify the couples headed for problems or continued happiness at the time that tthey were newlyweds.

By studying the dynamics of married couples throughout the evolution of their relationship, Huston and his colleagues were able to see who would end up divorced rather than, as in much divorce literature, only seeing the couples at the point of their relationship’s dissolution. Their measures of relationship included what the partners said about how they felt toward each other, how they perceived their partner’s personality, and the “behavioral climate” of their marriages.  The researchers assessed each couple along the dimensions of love and ambivalence, perceptions of the “contrariness” and responsiveness of the partner’s personality and behavioral negativity and overt expressions of affection.

After following their couples 2 and 13 years after marriage, Huston and his team concluded that their data gave the most support to the enduring dynamics model of distress.  Rather than newlyweds being head over heels in love, only to have the relationship unravel over time, the dynamics that characterize the beginning of a relationship persisted over time. Couples who were stayed together started out with positive scores on the relationship measures, and those who broke up showed warning signs on the love, perception, and behavioral dimensions at the beginning of their marriages.

The upshot of this research is that if you sense trouble in your relationship when it begins, this is probably a sign that the trouble will continue or worsen over time.  In an article called “The Connubial Crucible,” Huston and his colleagues delineate the dimensions that predict relationship bliss or misery.  See how your relationship measures up on these qualities:

Love and ambivalence

Love incorporates the qualities of belongingness, closeness, and attachment.  Couples in love feel that what happens in their relationship is important to them, and to their partner.

Ambivalence refers to partners feeling that they are confused or anxious about the relationship. Couples who are ambivalent regard themselves as trapped or pressured to continue in the relationship.

Beliefs about your partner’s personality

People who see their partners as responsive characterize them as pleasant, friendly, cooperative, amusing, forgiving, sincere and generous. Those who see their partners as high in "contrariness" find them to be domineering, hot-tempered, jealous, stubborn, critical, moody, and possessive.

Marital behavior of positivity and negativity

Of the many behaviors that couples engage in over the course of their relationship, the two that seem to count the most are how affectionate they are with each other and how negative or critical they are. The affectionate ratings include not only open expressions of positive feelings, but also expressing approval or complimenting the partner. Negative behaviors include instances of partners yelling at each other, being critical, and showing anger or impatience.  In developing this measure, Huston and his team telephoned the couples in their study to find out what they were doing at the moment to keep the measure as behavioral as possible.

From the results of Huston’s extensive research on the course of marriages, we can conclude that the ways partners rate on these dimensions will set the stage for the course of their later success or failure as a couple.  Problems in these areas occurring in the first two years of marriage will create long-term distress over the remaining years that the couple remains a couple.  Those couples most likely to divorce, in addition, are the ones whose emotions take the steepest plunge during those all-important first years.

Couples don’t have to give up on their marriage or long-term relationship even if it does show strains.  Depending on where you see the most problems, whether it’s ratings of your partner’s personality or a high degree of negative behavior, you can try to turn things around before the rifts become so deep that they can no longer be healed.  You may also need help. Research on couples therapy (Lebow et al., 2012) shows the value of seeking professional help to reduce both the distress in your relationship and the distress you feel as an individual. 

The key to making sure your relationship lasts is to take steps now to predict where it is going. If you can honestly assess your relationship along Huston’s dimensions and feel that it’s healthy and reasonably conflict-free, then you are probably in excellent shape for sticking together over the long haul. If not, taking these course-correcting steps now will help ensure that the long haul will be rewarding and fulfilling.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013

References:

Huston, T. L., Caughlin, J. P., Houts, R. M., Smith, S. E., & George, L. J. (2001). The connubial crucible: Newlywed years as predictors of marital delight, distress, and divorce. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(2), 237-252. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.80.2.237

Huston, T. L., Niehuis, S., & Smith, S. E. (2001). The early marital roots of conjugal distress and divorce. Current Directions In Psychological Science, 10(4), 116-119. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.00129

Lebow, J. L., Chambers, A. L., Christensen, A., & Johnson, S. M. (2012). Research on the treatment of couple distress. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(1), 145-168. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2011.00249.x

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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