Marriage and Satisfying Relationships Research Paper

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This research paper reviews psychological and experimental analysis that provides important insights into the nature of, and influences on, satisfying couple relationships. In addition, there is a description of the application of this knowledge to relationship education for promoting satisfying relationships, and to couple therapy for improving distressed relationships.

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1. Significance of Couple Relationship Satisfaction and Stability

Most people have an intimate couple relationship at some point in their lives. In western countries, over 90 percent of the population marry by the age of 50 years (McDonald 1995). Even amongst those who choose not to marry, the vast majority engage in marriagelike, committed couple relationships (McDonald 1995). Couples who sustain mutually satisfying relationships experience many benefits. Relative to other people, those in satisfying marriages have lower rates of psychological distress, higher rated life happiness, and greater resistance to the detrimental effects of negative life events (Halford 2000).

Almost all couples report high relationship satisfaction at the time of marriage, but average satisfaction levels deteriorate across the first ten or so years of marriage (Glenn 1998). Around this average trend there is great variability between couples, with some couples sustaining high relationship satisfaction across their life, and others experiencing severe relationship dissatisfaction. Decreased satisfaction is associated with high risk of separation (Gottman 1994). About 42 percent of Australian marriages, 55 percent of American marriages, 42 percent of English marriages and 37 percent of German marriages end in divorce, and about half of these divorces occur in the first seven years of marriage (McDonald 1995).

2. The Nature of Stable, Satisfying Relationships

The nature of stable, satisfying relationships varies by culture. For example, the acceptability of particular gender roles is quite different across cultures. Rather than attempting to define how relationships should be, psychologists measure relationship satisfaction with standardized questionnaires. While couples vary in what they want from relationships, within western cultures we can define some general characteristics of stable, mutually satisfying relationships.

2.1 Conflict Management

No two people can agree on everything, hence conflict must be managed. Both independent observers and spouses report that effecti e conflict management is associated with relationship satisfaction (Weiss and Heyman 1997). When discussing conflict issues, dissatisfied partners often are hostile and critical, they negatively demand change of each other, and do not listen to their partner (Weiss and Heyman 1997). As might be expected, dissatisfied couples find this conflict aversive, and often avoid or withdraw from problem discussions (Gottman 1994).

Couples often develop unhelpful patterns of conflict management. Two important examples are the demand-withdraw and mutual avoidance patterns (Weiss and Heyman 1997). In the demand-withdraw pattern, one partner criticizes and demands change, while the spouse attempts to withdraw from the discussion. In mutual avoidance, both partners avoid discussion of particular conflict topics. Both patterns are associated with a failure to effectively resolve the relationship conflict, which often results in the issue remaining unresolved and being a source of future conflict.

In contrast to dissatisfied couples, satisfied couples are less reactive at an emotional level to their partner’s negativity during conflict. Satisfied couples report less anger, and are less likely to reciprocate with hostile, negative behavior in discussions than dissatisfied couples (e.g., Gottman 1994). Relationship distress is associated with high levels of physiological arousal (e.g., elevated heart rate, high stress hormone levels) during interaction (Gottman 1994). This arousal is assumed to be aversive, which may explain the higher rates of withdrawal during problem-focused discussions by distressed partners (Gottman 1994).

Violence is common between partners in intimate relationships. About 30 percent of young couples report at least one incident in which one partner struck the other in the previous year (O’Leary 1999). Violence is most common in couples who are dissatisfied with their relationship; approximately two thirds of distressed couples have been violent in the year prior to their presentation for therapy (O’Leary 1999). While men and women are approximately equally likely to strike each other, when women are the victims of partner violence they are much more likely than men to be injured, to report feeling fear of their partner, and to show psychological disorder (O’Leary 1999).

2.2 Communication and Support

Couples who are satisfied in their relationship report that they communicate well. They talk to each other about positive feelings they have about each other and the relationship (Weiss and Heyman 1997), as well as about things that happen in their day-to-day lives. Over time these conversations build a sense of intimacy. Satisfied couples also support each other. This shows both in emotional support provided through listening carefully to the partner and offering advice when requested, and in practical support, which is provided to assist with life challenges (Bradbury 1998).

2.3 Behavior

Couples in satisfying relationships do more positive things and fewer negative things than distressed couples (Weiss and Heyman 1997). For example, they are more likely to express affection, provide support, state appreciation of the actions of their partner, have enjoyable discussion, and share household tasks. Distressed couples tend to be positive only if their partner recently has been positive. In addition, if one distressed partner behaves negatively, the other often responds negatively immediately (Weiss and Heyman 1997). In contrast, satisfied couples tend to be positive irrespective of their partner’s prior actions.

Satisfied couples sustain a balance of shared, enjoyable couple activities and independent interests. Relative to distressed couples, satisfied couples share positive activities more often, and seek out new, shared activities that enhance their sense of intimacy (Baumeister and Bratlavsky 1999). At the same time, satisfied partners also sustain a range of activities and interests independent of their spouse. In contrast, distressed couples typically repeat a narrow range of activities, and often do not have a balance of individual and shared activities, spending either very little or almost all of their free time together (Baumeister and Bratlavsky 1999).

2.4 Perceptual Biases

People are not reliable or objective observers of their relationship. Distressed couples selectively attend to their partner’s negative behavior and selectively recall that negative behavior (Weiss and Heyman 1997). In contrast, satisfied partners tend to overlook negative behaviors by their spouse, to have an unrealistically positive view of their partner, and to selectively recall positive aspects of relationship interaction (Weiss and Heyman 1997).

2.5 Beliefs and Thoughts about Relationships

Another characteristic of satisfied couples is holding positive, realistic beliefs about their relationship and their partner. Satisfied couples think about their relationship and its maintenance as a shared challenge, and express a sense of shared goals, affection, commitment and respect within the relationship (Carrere et al. 2000). In contrast, distressed couples focus on their individual needs, and express disappointment, disillusionment and a sense of chaos in their relationship (Carrere et al. 2000). Distressed couples are more likely than satisfied couples to believe that any form of disagreement is destructive, that change by partners is not possible, and that rigid adherence to traditional gender roles is desirable (Baucom and Epstein 1990).

When there are problems in the relationship, distressed couples attribute the causes of those problems to stable, internal, and negative characteristics of their partner (Baucom and Epstein 1990). For example, a partner arriving home late from work may be perceived as ‘a generally selfish person who doesn’t care about the family’ by a distressed partner. The same behavior may be attributed by a maritally satisfied partner as the spouse ‘struggling to keep up with a heavy load at work, and being subject to lots of pressure from the boss.’ The process of attributing relationship problems to the partner leaves many people in distressed relationships feeling powerless to improve their relationship.

3. Influences on Relationship Outcomes

Four broad classes of variables seem to impact upon the trajectory of relationship satisfaction and stability: contextual variables, individual characteristics, couple interaction, and life events (Glenn 1998; Karney and Bradbury 1995, Larson and Holman 1994).

3.1 Contextual Variables

Contextual variables are the cultural and social circumstances within which couple relationships exist. High levels of support of the relationship by family and friends, being active in a religion that supports marriage, and living in a country with a low divorce rate and a strong valuing of marriage all predict relationship satisfaction and stability (Larson and Holman 1994). Social disadvantage in the form of low education, poverty, or being a member of an oppressed ethnic group is associated with higher rates of relationship problems and divorce (Larson and Holman 1994). Work, parenting, and friendships all have the capacity to enrich or to cause problems for couple relationships. For example, employment that provides opportunities for utilization of skills and flexibility in meeting family needs is associated with higher relationship satisfaction than employment that is unsatisfying, or associated with work-family role conflicts (Larson and Holman 1994).

3.2 Indi idual Characteristics

Individual characteristics are relatively stable individual differences that partners bring to the relationship, such as personality traits, psychological disorder, and the effects of personal history. Certain personality traits are associated with increased likelihood of having satisfying relationships. For example, low neuroticism and secure attachment style are associated with low risk of relationship problems (Karney and Bradbury 1995, Feeneyand Noller 1996). Neuroticism is a relatively stable tendency to perceive the world as threatening, and to experience negative emotions such as anxiety and low mood. Attachment style is a relatively stable individual difference in the extent to which people feel anxious about being abandoned by those close to them, or uncomfortable with emotional closeness. Attachment style is the general way a person thinks and responds emotionally in close relationships. Attachment style is believed to be influenced greatly by early experiences within the family of origin (Feeney and Noller 1996).

Psychological disorder in one or both partners increases the risk of relationship problems. Alcohol abuse, depression, and certain anxiety disorders all are commonly associated with relationship problems (Halford et al. 1999). In some cases the psychological disorder seems to cause the relationship problem. For example, alcohol abuse by one partner early in the relationship predicts later relationship violence and deterioration in relationship satisfaction (Halford et al. 1999). In other cases, the relationship problems seem to exacerbate the disorder. For example, marital conflict predicts relapse to problem drinking by men who have previously brought problem drinking under control (Halford et al. 1999).

Personal history is another individual characteristic that predicts relationship satisfaction. For example, experiencing parental divorce or inter-parental violence as a child predicts decreased relationship satisfaction and increased risk of divorce as an adult (Larson and Holman 1994). Also, having been divorced oneself predicts increased risk of problems in the current relationship.

3.3 Couple Interaction

Couple interaction refers to the behavior, thoughts and feelings of partners when they interact. Effective conflict management, good communication, mutual partner support, positive behavior toward each other, shared enjoyable activities and realistic relationship expectations not only are part of current relationship satisfaction, these couple interaction processes also predict future relationship satisfaction and stability (Bradbury 1998, Karney and Bradbury 1995). When trying to promote positive couple relationships, couple interaction is particularly important as it is something that can be changed. For example, more effective communication can be taught to couples.

3.4 Life E ents

Life events are the major events and transitions that happen to the couple during the course of their relationship. Life events include both normal changes that most couples experience, such as the birth of a child or a change of job, as well as major, less predictable events such as death of young people in the family, being a victim of crime, or loss of employment. Relationship satisfaction changes most when life events are occurring. For example, when a couple has their first child many couples report either substantial increases or decreases in their relationship satisfaction.

3.5 Influences on Relationships and Risk for Relationship Problems

Context, individual characteristics, couple interaction and life events interact in their influence on the course of couple relationship satisfaction and stability. For example, low mutual support by partners has the most negative impact upon relationship satisfaction when the couple experience challenging life events (Bradbury 1998). This is particularly so when a contextual factor is operating as well, for example when there are few other social supports available through extended family or friends.

As context, individual characteristics, and couple interaction can be assessed early in a committed relationship, it is possible to assess, for individual couples, indicators of relationship risk for developing future problems. Risk level in turn predicts relationship distress and or separation in the early years of marriage (Bradbury 1998, Gottman 1994). The prediction of future relationship satisfaction is not perfect, both because our understanding of the influences on couple relationships is imprecise, and because we cannot know the future changes in context or life events that will impact upon a couple. However, by identifying high-risk couples early in their relationships, it is possible to offer them relationship education to improve their relationship outcomes.

4. Relationship Education

Across many Western countries, relationship education programs are available to marrying and cohabiting couples (van Widenfelt et al. 1997). These programs are intended to assist couples to sustain satisfying relationships and to reduce divorce rates (van Widenfelt et al. 1997). Most relationship education programs are offered by religious and community groups, the content of these programs is often not documented, and the effects of most of these programs have not been evaluated (Halford 2000). Relationship education programs which have been evaluated focus either on inventory-based or skillsbased education (Halford 2000).

4.1 In entory-based Relationship Education

Inventory-based relationship education is a widely used approach in which partners complete standardized self-report forms that assess relationship expectations, beliefs and current patterns of interactions (Halford 2000). The most widely used inventories are PREPARE and Facilitating Open Couples Communication (FOCCUS). In both PREPARE and FOCCUS, trained relationship educators review the partners’ individual answers with the couple, helping them to identify areas of agreement and relationship strength, and areas of disagreement and potential difficulty. Sometimes these insights are supplemented with further discussion and exercises to help the couple develop shared, positive, and realistic relationship beliefs and expectations.

The answers partners give to PREPARE and FOCCUS predict the couples’ relationship satisfaction and stability over the first few years of marriage (Halford 2000). However, there is no adequate scientific demonstration that participating in PREPARE, FOCCUS or other similar inventory-based relationship education enhances future relationship satisfaction or stability.

4.2 Skills-based Relationship Education

There are several skills-based relationship education programs, and they all place emphasis upon developing couples’ conflict management and communication skills. For example, the Guerney Relationship Enhancement Program and the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) both place emphasis upon training couples in these skills (Halford 2000). At the same time, it is recognized that successful relationships require more than just effective conflict management and good communication. Consequently, skills-training relationship education includes other content such as promoting mutual partner support, expressing affection, and having fun (Markman et al. 1994).

Five to six sessions of skills-training relationship education reliably improves couple conflict management and communication (Markman and Hahlweg 1993). These changes are maintained for months or even years after completing the education program (Markman and Hahlweg 1993). In three published controlled trials, PREP enhanced relationship satisfaction up to 5 years after marriage relative to a control group (Markman and Hahlweg 1993), though in one of these studies PREP benefited only high-risk couples (Halford et al. in press).

5. Couple Therapy

Couple therapy is defined by the use of conjoint therapy sessions to alter the relationship between the partners. While there are many forms of couple therapy, only a very small number of the diverse couple therapy approaches have been subjected to scientific evaluation (Baucom et al. 1998). Over three quarters of 40 published controlled trials of couple therapy evaluate cognitive-behavioral couple therapy (CBCT) (Baucom et al. 1998). The only other couple therapy that meets usual scientific criteria for being an evidence-based therapy is Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT).

5.1 Cognitive-Behavioral Couple Therapy (CBCT )

In CBCT the interaction between partners is viewed as the key to the relationship problem. Careful assessment of the couple’s interaction patterns and each partner’s thoughts and feelings is undertaken. Education and skills training are used to help the couple develop more positive interaction and more positive, realistic relationship beliefs (Baucom and Epstein 1990). For example, if a couple showed the demand-withdraw communication pattern that is common in distressed couples, CBCT might seek to alter this pattern by training the couple in better communication and conflict management.

The cognitive aspect of CBCT is based on the assumption that how partners think mediates their emotional and behavioral responses to one another. Unrealistic relationship beliefs such as ‘any form of disagreement with my partner is destructive to the relationship’ are believed to underlie negative emotions in relationships. Similarly unhelpful, partner-blaming attributions such as ‘he she does these negative things just to annoy me’ also mediate negative emotions in relationships. When relationship negativity is excessive, emphasis is placed on changing such negative thoughts (Baucom and Epstein 1990).

In terms of reducing relationship distress, CBCT consistently has been shown to be superior to no treatment, or to less structured supportive counselling with a therapist, (Baucom et al. 1998). CBCT improves couples’ communication skills, reduces destructive conflict, increases the frequency of positive day-to-day interactions, increases positive, realistic thinking about the relationship, and enhances relationship satisfaction (Baucom et al. 1998).

Despite the replicated positive effects of CBCT, there are significant limitations to its effects. Approximately 25-30 percent of couples show no measurable improvement with CBCT, and as many as a further 30 percent improve somewhat from therapy, but still report significant relationship distress after treatment (Baucom et al. 1998). Even amongst those couples who initially respond well to CBCT, there is substantial relapse toward relationship distress over the next few years (Baucom et al. 1998).

5.2 Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT )

Like CBCT EFT aims to change the couple’s interaction. In EFT it is asserted that negative couple interaction often is driven by the partners’ internal emotions, which often result from insecure attachment. For example, a high fear of abandonment might lead one partner to be very jealous, or to be hyper-sensitive to any criticism by the spouse. The goal of EFT is to access and reprocess the partners’ unhelpful emotional responses, to develop more secure attachment styles, and in this way promote more positive couple interaction (Baucom et al. 1998).

EFT has been evaluated in five controlled trials (Baucom et al. 1998), and has been found to significantly improve relationship satisfaction relative to no treatment or unstructured supportive counseling. However, there is little evidence that EFT helps couples via the mechanisms suggested by the proponents. In other words, there is evidence that this form of couple therapy is helpful, but it is not clear why it helps.

6. Summary

Mutually satisfying long-term couple relationships confer many advantages to the spouses and their children. Satisfying relationships are characterized by effective conflict management, good communication, high levels of mutual support, positive day-to-day behavior, positive biases in perception of the partner and the relationship, and positive and realistic relationship beliefs. While almost all couples begin with high relationship commitment and satisfaction, only some couples sustain their satisfaction long-term. The influences on whether relationship satisfaction is sustained include the context in which the couple lives, their individual characteristics, their interactions, and the life events that happen to them. Based on an assessment of individual characteristics and couple interaction, it is possible to classify, for an individual couple, their level of risk for developing future relationship problems. Relationship education that teaches key relationship skills, such as conflict management and communication, enhances the maintenance of high relationship satisfaction. CBCT and EFT help at least some couples who are distressed to improve their relationship.


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