On April 29, at least 2 billion people watched Prince William, second in line to the English throne, marry his long-time girlfriend Kate Middleton. Although the wedding went off without a hitch and all agreed the bride looked fabulous, for those of us who remember a similar occasion 30 years ago, there was just a touch of apprehension. What can save this marriage from foundering on the rocks like so many other royal marriages -- or regular marriages for that matter?
Psychology has turned its lens to marriage and there are research studies that can shed some light on this problem.
Are there health benefits to marriage?
In general, marriage confers benefits for both emotional and physical health. Married people tend to report higher life satisfaction and lower psychological distress than single people, meaning those who never married or are widowed or divorced. This must be qualified, however, by the quality of the marriage. Unhappily married people report greater emotional distress than single people. Thus it appears that being married has benefits over being single, unless one is unhappily married. It is also not clear whether the benefits are solely due to marriage per se or to the benefits of any long-term, committed relationship. Research is very clear that social support is a critical protective factor against emotional and physical stress. Likewise, single people who establish solid social support networks often report high life satisfaction.
What makes a marriage last?
What makes a marriage last?
As marriages progress, the passion that may have characterized the early days tends to mellow into a deep bond of intimacy and commitment. Therefore, the relationship qualities that promote intimacy and commitment are most important to a long-lasting marriage. Strong communication, the ability to manage conflict constructively, shared experiences and values, and high levels of warmth and affection all contribute to successful marriages. In addition, financial stability, positive ties to the extended family, and positive role models in both partners' families (vs. frequent divorces and marital acrimony) are associated with long-term marriages.
What makes a marriage fail?
Research suggests that marriages of people in their early twenties or younger are more likely to fail than marriages between older partners. Further, overly hasty marriages, such as those that take place within six months after meeting, are less likely to succeed. Additionally, insecure financial status, distant or acrimonious relationships with the extended family, and the absence of positive marital examples in the extended family are associated with poor marital outcome. As described in a 1993 paper by John Gottman, marital failure can also be predicted by the quality of couples' interactions. Couples who displayed high levels of defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling, and criticism, as well as facial expressions of disgust were more likely to end up separated or divorced several years later.
How important are common interests?
Contrary to popular belief, opposites do not attract, at least not that much. People are most likely to be attracted to partners who are similar to them. Research shows that spouses tend to share a great deal of similarities with regard to interests, personality, attitudes, ethnic background, educational goals or attainment, and even height. Relationships tend to work better and last longer between partners who are fairly similar to each other. Partners should not expect to share all interests, values or attitudes but it is helpful to have considerable overlap.
How important is communication in marriage?
Good quality communication is a critical ingredient to a successful marriage. In fact, most marital therapies focus on enhancing communication. While it is not necessary and can even be destructive to hash out every little bump in the marital path, it is critical that recurrent problems or personally meaningful issues be discussed directly. People cannot be expected to automatically know what their partner wants or needs or what is making the other person unhappy. When there is insufficient communication, misunderstandings can arise, resulting in unnecessary conflict. Additionally, inadequate communication can lead to emotional distance as partners can grow progressively apart. If this continues unabated, one partner can end up seeking emotional and sexual intimacy outside the marriage.
Gottman, JM (1993). "A Theory of Marital DIssolution and Stability," Journal of Family Psychology, 7(1), 57-75.
Gurman, A., Kniskern, D.P. (1991). Handbook of Family Therapy, Volume II. Bristol, PA: Brunner/Mazel.