In my previous blog, I made the assertion that you do not have a “50/50 shot” at a successful marriage. For any given reader, the odds could vary dramatically, depending on a number of factors I will continue to describe in upcoming blogs. What I do know is that compared to the population at large, more well-educated individuals have much lower rates of divorce and appear to have more satisfying marriages. As I mentioned previously, in my modern day sample (2008) of over 600 well-educated women, only 6% had divorced and nearly all rated their marriages as highly satisfying.  

This is not only true today—well-educated couples in generations past have also enjoyed better marriages. The parents of those in my sample are also very well-educated—65% percent of the fathers and 50% of the mothers have an advanced degree of some type (e.g. M.D., Ph.D., J.D., or Master’s level degree). In this well-educated set of parents, 80% of marriages are still intact. By their children’s estimation, the clear majority (75%) of these marriages are generally quite satisfying—fewer than 25% of their children view their parents’ marriages are either “a little dissatisfied (16.6%) or “very dissatisfied” (7.8%).  

These results replicate the findings of the world's longest continuous study of physical and mental health, a study launched in 1937 that has followed 237 students at Harvard University through health, disease, and death. The lead researcher, Dr. George Vaillant, recruited only students judged by the Harvard College dean as “promising adults” with “no mental or physical health problems.” In tracking the marriages in the sample*,  he measured marital satisfaction with these four specific questions:  

1. Solutions to disagreements generally come: 1=easily, 2=moderately hard, 3=always difficult, 4=we go without a solution.

2. How stable do you think your marriage is? 1=quite stable, 2=some minor weaknesses, 3=moderate weaknesses, 4=major weaknesses, 5=not stable

3. Sexual adjustment is, on the whole: 1=very satisfying, 2=satisfying, 3=at times not as good as wished, 4=rather poor. 

4. Separation or divorce has been considered: 1=never, 2=only casually, 3=seriously.  

The scores on these items were summed to provide the global measure of marital satisfaction. The score of someone who is blissfully happy in his or her marriage and feels that the marriage is absolutely perfect would have a score of 4 (1+1+1+1). To really understand the results of the Vaillant and Vaillant study, it's helpful to translate these numbers into meaningful statements. Someone with a perfect score would essentially be saying, “We solve disagreements easily, our marriage is quite stable, our sex life is very satisfying, and we've never considered divorce, ever” (I wonder, would anyone other than a honeymooning newlywed ever score a 4?).

On the other end of the scale, the score of someone who is miserably unhappy with his or her marriage could be as high as 16 (4+5+4+3).  In other words, someone with the highest score on this scale would essentially be saying, “Our disagreements go unresolved, our marriage is not stable, our sex life is disappointing, and we have seriously considered divorce.”

The average ratings of the quality of marriage for husbands and wives in this sample over the first 15 years of marriage were 5 and 6, respectively. After 31 years of marriage, the average ratings for husbands and wives were 6 and 7, respectively.   

Here is an example of how we could translate these scores based on the meaning of the items. A score of 5 could hypothetically be translated as saying, “Solutions to disagreements are generally easy to come by, we have never considered divorce, our marriage is quite stable, and our sexual relationship is satisfying.” A score of 6 could hypothetically mean “Solutions to disagreements are moderately hard to come by, but our sex life is satisfying, our marriage is quite stable, and we've never considered divorce.” A score of 7 could hypothetically mean “Solutions are not always easy to come by. Sometimes, negotiating is even moderately hard, so I'd say that our marriage has some minor weaknesses, but our sex life is still satisfying and we never think of divorce.” In other words, both husbands and wives in Vaillant’s sample rated their marriages as near perfect to begin with and still near perfect after 31 years of marriage!   

Isn’t it interesting that researchers have long known that well-educated people have much better marriages, yet this doesn’t often come up in discussions about the divorce rate?  It seems to be a kind of “open secret.” I wonder whether some hesitate to explore this phenomenon because it doesn’t sound politically correct to point it out? Perhaps it’s more comfortable to reference the statistic that 50% of marriages end in divorce and to talk in generalities about the qualities of good marriages? Ultimately, shying away from discussing this truth serves no one well. The goal of many of my future blogs will be to analyze and describe the reasons for such different outcomes in marriage…stay posted for more! 

* Vaillant, C.O., and Vaillant, G.E. (1993). “Is the U-curve of Marital Satisfaction an Illusion? A 40-year study of Marriage.” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 55, p. 236.

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