Whether to marry and whom to marry are among the biggest decisions—arguably the biggest—any adult makes. But with a divorce rate between 40 percent and 50 percent for first marriages, and 60 percent for second tries, we may not be as skilled in choosing as we need to be. And despite the volume of self-help guidance available, we don’t seem to be getting any better.
So what gives? The problem may be the way we think about marriage. A look at the research reveals that some of our most common beliefs about the institution, and how to make it work, are wrong.
1. Living together first is a good idea.
I will readily admit that this is what I thought—until I read new research contradicting this myth. There's some logic to the findings: When people marry after living together for a substantial period of time, there is still an important transition ahead. It’s only after you’re married that your (and your spouse’s) ideas of what marriage should be like—and how spouses ought to behave—kick in. These conceptions, usually undiscussed and often unarticulated in advance, come out of our childhoods, our perceptions of our parents’ marriages, our upbringing, and our personal expectations. Some of us who were fine with our lovers’ behaviors before we tied the knot may find ourselves feeling differently afterward.
But the research, by Scott M. Stanley and his colleagues, goes much further. It suggests that living together actually gets in the way of the kind of deliberative and conscious decision-making that the commitment of marriage requires. Their research suggests that previously cohabitating couples “slide” into marriage in largely unexamined ways, accounting for their greater probability of divorce and weaker communication skills.
Similarly, study of sexual infidelity by Judith Greas and Deidre Giesen revealed that, in general, people who live together are more likely to be unfaithful to their partners than people who are married—not surprising, since they have less invested in their relationships than married people. Research shows that when married people do cheat, they tend to do some kind of cost/benefit analysis before taking the plunge rather than being swept off their feet by passion and lust. But here's what's amazing: Treas and Giesen found that living together before marriage raised the odds of eventual marital infidelity by 39 percent. That’s a statistic worth keeping in mind.
2. Arguing is normal and healthy.
The short answer is that it depends on not just what you’re arguing about, but, more important, how you argue and how often. Research by Frank D. Fincham and Thomas N. Bradbury studied the role of causal attribution in marriage—how people explain tense or annoying situations. In distressed marriages, the cause is usually attributed to a characteristic associated with the spouse, such as his or her self-centeredness, sloppiness, etc. In happier, more stable marriages, spouses tend to minimize negative events and look to external causes to explain them.
Say you asked your spouse to pick up the dry cleaning after work and be home on time for dinner. He or she arrives close to two hours late, with no dry cleaning in hand. Your spouse explains that there was a last-minute crisis at work and that they got so wrapped up in fixing that they totally forgot the errand and what time it was. You are annoyed, to be sure. But do you accept the explanation or go global and personal, reminding your spouse how this is typical of their self-involvement, and that they never give anything you ask for priority? This game is highly destructive and solidly predictive of divorce.
Marital expert John Gottman, author of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, suggests a 5:1 ratio of positive interaction to negative for a marriage to have a likelihood of succeeding. Not 50/50—five loving, sustaining actions to every one bad one.
Further, Gottman writes, how you argue is more important than what you argue about. The focus of what you fight about will change over time, though there may be some constants like money and division of labor. As for how you argue, Gottman delineates four distinctive modes of destructive interaction, which he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse": The first is criticism (or attribution, as identified by Fincham and Bradbury)—instead of focusing on the action, the focus is on the spouse’s personality which caused the action. Next is contempt, which is distinguished from criticism by its intention to wound your partner’s sense of self. The third is defensiveness—and while a defensive reaction is understandable in some situations, Gottman believes it always escalates a conflict because the defensive person refuses to take responsibility, instead making excuses, whining, or cross-complaining (that's when you complain that he doesn’t pull his weight in helping with the kids, and he responds by complaining that you spend too much money). Finally, there is stonewalling. While sitting there and saying nothing as your spouse declaims may seem passive, it’s actually very aggressive. Saying nothing, or worse, staring into space or picking up the newspaper, marginalizes the speaker and his or feelings. It's also distancing, dismissive, and smug.
3. It’s okay for partners to be different.
It’s true enough that opposites often attract, but certain fundamental differences are meaningful and may present insurmountable problems. One is “framing,” or how you understand and deal with situations. People fall into two camps: those who are “approach-oriented" (positively inclined and goal-seeking) and those who are “avoidance-oriented" (focused largely on avoiding negative outcomes). These are both motivational differences—with one person seeing a difficulty as a challenge and the other seeing only the possibility of failure—and ways of looking at the world.
It can be very hard to get on the same page as someone whose orientation is the opposite of yours, in part because of framing. Studies show that the language that people use betrays how they frame. For example, therapy patients who articulated approach-oriented goals (“I want to understand myself and my feelings” and “I want to feel joyful and stable”) got more out of therapy and reported more well-being than people whose goals were framed in avoidant terms (“I want to stop feeling confused” and “I want to avoid getting depressed”). You’ll note that the goals espoused by both individuals are the same, but the approaches are opposite.
Bottom line: some differences are damaging to marital health and difficult to fix.
4. My partner’s relationship history doesn’t matter.
I’ve been in love, and I know we all want to believe that no matter what our lover did before, he or she would never do any of those things in our relationship. Alas, patterns of behavior do tend to persist, and personalities tend to be stable over time. In their study of infidelity, Treas and Giesen found that each additional sexual partner between the age of 18 and the time of a marriage increased the eventual likelihood of infidelity by 1 percent. (You can do the math yourself.)
Rather than glossing over your partner’s emotional history, do your best to see which, if any, of those behaviors are present in your own relationship and interactions, and then to point out those behaviors, not in a critical or angry way, but calmly and dispassionately. If you are lucky enough to have a partner who is both committed to your marriage and willing to change, working together can work.
What’s important here is what a person believes about the nature of the self, as pointed out by Carol S. Dweck in her article, “Can Personality Be Changed?” Dweck cites both her own work and that of others to posit that an individual’s theory of self influences both behavior and the ability to rise to challenges. There are people who believe that their intelligence, emotional behaviors, and personalities are fixed. These people are unlikely candidates for discussion of change. But people with a malleable theory of self believe change is possible, even if only with exerted effort. Research shows that a malleable theory of self makes individuals open to learning, able to deal with failure, willing to confront challenges, and capable of working on difficulties in relationship.
So perhaps a good question to ask a potential spouse is whether his or her theory of self is fixed or malleable. Your future may depend on it.
Copyright© Peg Streep 2014
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Stanley, Scott M., Galena Kline Rhoades, and Howard J. Markman, “Sliding Versus Deciding: Inertia and the Premarital Cohabitation Effect,” Family Relations 55 (October 2006), 499-509.
Treas, Judith and Deidre Giesen. “Sexual Infidelity Among Married And Cohabitating Americans,“ Journal of Marriage and the Family (2000), 62, 48-60.
Elliot, Andrew J. and Marcy A. Church,”Client-Articulated Avoidance Goals in the Therapy Context,” Journal of Counseling Psychology (2002), 49, no.2, 243-254.
Fincham, Frank D. and Thomas N. Bradbury,” Assessing Attributions in Marriage: The Relationship Attribution Measure,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1992), vl.2, no.3, 457-468.
Fincham, Frank D., Gordon T. Harold, and Susan Gano-Philips, “The Longitudinal Association between Attributions and Marital Satisfaction,” Journal of Family Psychology (2000), vol.14, no,27, 267-285.
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside, 1994.
Dweck, Carol S., “Can Personality Be Changed? The Role of Beliefs in Personality and Change,” Current Directions in Psychology Science (2008), vol.17, no.6, 391-394.