There are many positive experiences related to marriage, as opposed to just dating indefinitely. Marriage represents a permanent partnership and a commitment to loyalty and fidelity. When we add in the benefits of spousal respect and friendship, we have a recipe for success that breeds a high degree of satisfaction and happiness. Starting a family solidifies matrimony for many spouses, celebrating a union designed to last a lifetime.
Yet because the institution of marriage is plagued with a high rate of divorce, couples should move slowly in deciding when to make the move from single to spouse. Couples destined for success will carefully consider the ingredients of a healthy, satisfying marriage before they take the plunge.
Marital Quality and Life Satisfaction
Research reveals what most people know personally or have observed—there are differences in relational dynamics between couples that are dating, versus those who have officially walked down the aisle together. In terms of achieving happiness and quality of life, if a dating relationship is not satisfying, marrying your partner is not a solution for success. Research reveals that, particularly as couples age, a happy marriage predicts a happy life.
Deborah Carr et al. in “Happy Marriage, Happy Life?” (2014) examined the relationship between marital quality and life satisfaction.[i] They looked at both general life satisfaction, as well as what they termed experienced (momentary) well‐being in husbands and wives who were older. They also examined the respective significance of a spouse's own appraisal of marriage on well‐being, and how this assessment is impacted by the appraisal of one´s spouse. They found, “One's own marital satisfaction is a sizable and significant correlate of life satisfaction and momentary happiness; associations do not differ significantly by gender.”
Carr et al. did not find that a spouse's marital appraisal significantly impacted one's own well-being. They did, however, find a distinction between husbands and wives in terms of how a spouse's appraisals factor into one's own level of marriage satisfaction. They found that a husband's quality of marriage and life satisfaction was enhanced by a wife who also reports marital happiness, but diminished when she does not.
It stands to reason that a healthy, satisfying marriage is a good predictor of individual well-being and happiness. What is less intuitive, however, is how marital status impacts fidelity or, perhaps more importantly, the lack thereof. According to research, the factors that impact the likelihood of one partner straying are different depending on whether the couple has formally tied the knot.
Predicting Dating Dissolution Versus Divorce
Research on attachment theory indicates that, apparently, the risk of infidelity is different for dating partners versus those who have already tied the knot. V. Michelle Russell et al. (2013), in two longitudinal studies of 207 newlywed marriages, found that individual and partner attachment anxiety predicted marital infidelity.[ii]
They explain attachment theory as the manner in which intimate partners create “mental representations of the availability of close others that lead to strong cognitive and behavioral patterns of responding to those others.” They note that people with a secure attachment style view close others as available, leading to behavior in conformity with this belief. In contrast, people with an insecure attachment style—i.e., attachment anxiety or attachment avoidance—are more likely to view others close to them as less available, leading to behavior in conformity with this belief.
In the study, Russell et al. found spouses more likely to be unfaithful when either they or their partner was high in attachment anxiety. This finding was contrary to research among couples who were just dating (versus married), which showed attachment anxiety as unrelated to infidelity.
They also found, in contrast to research on couples who were only dating, that personal attachment avoidance was not related to infidelity, although they found partner attachment avoidance to be negatively associated with infidelity. They explain that this finding suggests that spouses would be less likely to be unfaithful when their partner was high in attachment avoidance. The authors also note that their effects did not differ between wives and husbands, and emerged notwithstanding controlling for personality, sexual frequency, and marital satisfaction.
A Pairing Prepared for Permanence
Marriage is designed to be more than a contract; it is designed to be a covenant. In contrast to dating, marriage involves a higher level of formal commitment, which usually begins with a memorialized covenant before God, family, and friends. There is a wide body of research detailing the association between marriage and spousal well-being. But given the high rate of divorce, a path towards declaring “till death do us part” should be paved with caution and common sense.
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[i]Deborah Carr, Vicki A. Freedman, Jennifer C. Cornman, and Norbert Schwarz, "Happy Marriage, Happy Life? Marital Quality and Subjective Well-being in Later Life," Journal of Marriage and the Family 76, no. 5 (2014): 930-948.
[ii]V. Michelle Russell, Levi R. Baker, and James K. McNulty, “Attachment Insecurity and Infidelity in Marriage: Do Studies of Dating Relationships Really Inform Us About Marriage?” Journal of Family Psychology 27, no. 2 (2013): 242-251.