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The success or failure of a marriage is likely to depend, at least in part, on the personality of the individual spouses, broadly deﬁned as the set of enduring traits and characteristics that each spouse brings to the relationship. Three questions have motivated most research on the role of personality in marriage. First, what personality traits are most relevant to predicting marital outcomes? Second, does similarity or dissimilarity between partners’ personalities aﬀect marital outcomes? Third, through what mechanisms does the personality of each spouse aﬀect the relationship? This research paper reviews each of these areas of research in turn.
1. Which Personality Traits Aﬀect Marital Outcomes?
The earliest eﬀorts to predict marital outcomes were guided by the belief that ‘a large proportion of incompatible marriages are so because of a predisposition to unhappiness in one or both of the spouses’ (Terman 1938, p. 110). To explore the support for this belief, the ﬁrst marital researchers conducted two kinds of studies: cross-sectional studies, in which lengthy personality inventories were administered to samples that included happily married and distressed couples, and longitudinal studies, in which personality inventories were administered to engaged couples whose marital quality was assessed several years later. Early marital researchers were more interested in determining whether spouses’ personalities accounted for marital outcomes than in identifying which aspects of personality were associated with marital outcomes. Thus, the results of these initial studies were frequently reported in terms of a global personality score rather than divided into speciﬁc personality traits. Nevertheless, when Burgess and Wallin (1953), in the ﬁrst review of this literature, concluded that success and failure in marriage could be predicted by the personalities of each spouse, they noted that personality traits associated with neuroticism (e.g., irritability, moodiness, ill-temper) appeared to be especially predictive. Spouses who reported an enduring tendency to experience negative aﬀect across a variety of contexts seemed to be at greater risk of developing marital distress.
As these results accumulated, the same researchers noticed that other enduring characteristics of the spouses (e.g., childhood family environment, sexual history, demographic variables), were also signiﬁcant predictors of marital outcomes. Once statistical techniques for conducting multiple regression became widely available, a second wave of research examined the ability of personality traits to account for marital outcomes relative to these other sources of inﬂuence. Perhaps the most impressive of these studies is that of Kelly and Conley (1987), who followed a sample of 300 couples for over 40 years. At the initial phase of data collection, engaged partners provided self-reports of their early family environment, attitudes towards marriage, sexual history, and stressful life events. In addition, the researchers contacted ﬁve acquaintances of each partner and asked these individuals to rate the personality of the subject, a substantial improvement over the self-report inventories relied on by most prior (and subsequent) studies of personality. When all of these variables were examined at the same time, only the personality ratings emerged as signiﬁcant predictors of marital stability. Speciﬁcally, compared to marriages that remained intact, couples whose marriages dissolved over the course of the study were characterized by higher levels of neuroticism in both spouses and higher levels of impulsivity in husbands.
In the late 1980s, the development of the ﬁve-factor model of personality brieﬂy promised to expand the focus of marital research beyond the negative aspects of spouses’ personalities. According to this model, the many traits that had been studied in prior research on personality could be adequately summarized by ﬁve relatively independent dimensions: neuroticism, impulsivity, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Emerging support for this model lead marital researchers to ask whether dimensions of the ‘Big Five’ besides neuroticism and impulsivity may also be associated with marital outcomes. Thus, for example, Kurdek (1993), in a ﬁve-year study of newlywed couples, examined the ability of each of the ﬁve personality dimensions to predict the quality and stability of marriages over time. This study did ﬁnd that wives’ conscientiousness was weakly but positively associated with the stability of the marriage over ﬁve years. However, echoing the results of previous research, far larger eﬀects were obtained for the neuroticism of both spouses. Karney and Bradbury (1995), in a meta-analysis of longitudinal research on personality and marriage, reported that of all of the Big Five personality dimensions, only neuroticism had demonstrated consistent eﬀects on marriage across multiple studies. As the ﬁrst marital researchers suggested, a spouse’s ‘predisposition to unhappiness’ appears to predict decline and instability in marriage more reliably than other personality traits.
2. Similarity And Complementarity
As research on personality in marriage has developed, some have argued that the content of each spouse’s personality may be less important to understanding marital outcomes than the degree of similarity between spouses’ personalities. The assumption of this perspective is that spouses who share similar personalities should experience fewer opportunities for conﬂict and thus decreased risk of marital dissolution. Bentler and Newcomb (1978) oﬀered some support for this view in a longitudinal study of newlywed couples. Although each spouse’s level of extraversion had no independent association with their marital outcomes, the correlation between husbands’ and wives’ extraversion scores was signiﬁcantly higher among couples who remained married than among couples who divorced.
Despite the intuitive appeal of this perspective, the accumulation of further support has been limited by a number of diﬃculties in assessing the eﬀects of similarity in couples. First, the eﬀects of similarity on a given trait are rarely independent of the eﬀects of the trait itself. For example, Kurdek (1993) found that the diﬀerence between husbands’ and wives’ levels of neuroticism was greater in marriages that dissolved than in marriages that remained intact. This ﬁnding may support the role of personality similarity in marriage, but it may also result from the fact that diﬀerences between spouses are likely to be larger in couples where levels of neuroticism in either partner are higher overall. Estimating the unique eﬀects of similarity between spouses requires that the eﬀects of each spouse’s personality be accounted for ﬁrst. This is a control that has rarely been implemented.
A second diﬃculty with this kind of research is the fact that, as Kenny and Acitelli (1994) pointed out, ‘A couple may appear to be very similar in their responses, yet they may be no more similar than a man and a woman who are totally unacquainted’ (p. 419). Because there may be a typical way that most people tend to respond to personality inventories, the personalities of randomly matched people are likely to be similar to some degree. Estimating the unique degree of similarity in a given marriage requires that the ‘typical cultural response’ be controlled, but again this is a control that has rarely been implemented.
When similarity between spouses has been estimated accurately, support for beneﬁcial eﬀects of similar personalities has been sparse. For example, Russell and Wells (1991) reported that after controlling for the independent eﬀects of each spouse’s responses to a personality inventory, the association between marital satisfaction and the diﬀerences between spouses’ responses was rarely signiﬁcant. Furthermore, the overall association between spouses’ personalities tends to be weak (Buss 1984), even though spouses tend to be highly similar to each other on many other dimensions. In general, this research suggests that it may be spouses’ similarity on those other dimensions, and in particular the degree to which spouses are similar in their values and attitudes, that may be more relevant to account for marital outcomes. With respect to personality, the nature of each spouse’s personality appears to be more important than the degree of similarity between them.
In contrast to the similarity perspective, a competing view suggests that it is the degree of complementarity in spouses’ personalities that is key to the successful marriage. For example, Winch (1958) argued that spouses select each other to resolve inadequacies in their own characters. Thus, extraverted people should be happiest with introverted partners and domineering people should be happiest with submissive partners. Although this is also an intuitively appealing idea, to date all attempts to obtain empirical support for the complementarity hypothesis have failed.
3. How Does Personality Aﬀect Marital Outcomes?
Having established that personality traits, especially those associated with neuroticism, predict marital outcomes, the current focus of research on personality and marriage is to explain how this association comes about. Caspi et al. (1989), in their work on the eﬀects of personality throughout the life course, proposed a broad framework that may be applied to understanding this issue. These researchers described two kinds of processes through which personality may aﬀect development throughout the life course. ‘Cumulative continuity’ refers to all of the ways that individuals’ personalities channel them towards certain environments and opportunities. ‘Interactional continuity’ refers to all of the ways that individuals’ personalities aﬀect their behavior towards and cognitions about other people. There is substantial evidence that both of these processes may account for the eﬀects of spouses’ personalities on their marriages.
3.1 Cumulative Continuity In Marriage
From early childhood, the personality of an individual aﬀects not only the environments selected by the individual but also the opportunities available to the individual. Thus, for example, children who are prone to negative moods may choose career paths that are compatible with their temperament, but their choices may also be restricted by the behavioral consequences of their temperament (e.g., poorer educational attainment, lower professional accomplishment). In this way, individuals’ personalities may have cumulative consequences that greatly shape the context of their adult lives. The nature of their adult environments may in turn aﬀect the quality of individuals’ marital relationships. For example, women who experience chronic depression as adolescents tend to marry at a younger age compared to women who do not experience chronic depression (Gotlib et al. 1998). Age at marriage is associated with risks of divorce, such that people who marry at a younger age are at higher risk for divorce than people who marry later in life. Thus, the stable tendency to experience negative aﬀect in childhood appears to be associated, at least for women, with a life course that is detrimental to marriage.
In a similar vein, the personality characteristics of each spouse may give rise to stressful events and circumstances that impact the relationship. For example, individuals who score higher on measures of neuroticism describe events in their lives as more stressful than individuals scoring lower on such measures (Marco and Suls 1993). Furthermore, controlling for these reporting eﬀects, higher levels of neuroticism appear to be associated with greater numbers of stressful life events (Poulton and Andrews 1992). To explain such ﬁndings, some researchers have suggested that individuals who are prone to experiencing negative aﬀect frequently generate stressful circumstances that then serve to maintain their negative orientations. As a result of these processes, the marriages of individuals scoring higher in neuroticism may develop in more challenging circumstances than the marriages of less neurotic individuals. Because challenging circumstances, such as unemployment and ﬁnancial diﬃculty, have been shown to predict divorce, this may be another route through which the cumulative consequences of each spouse’s personality contribute to marital success and failure.
3.2 Interactional Continuity In Marriage
In addition to its role in shaping the circumstances of the marriage, personality may also aﬀect interpersonal processes occurring within the marriage. Spouses’ expectations for each other, the behaviors they exchange during their interactions, and the way they interpret those behaviors, have all been associated with the stable dispositions of each spouse. Through these mechanisms, the personality of each member of the couple may give rise to self-fulﬁlling prophecies, such that stable personality traits predict spouses’ feelings towards each other and thus lead spouses to act in ways that conﬁrm or enhance those feelings.
Support for these ideas has been especially strong with regard to negative aﬀectivity, that is, neuroticism. For example, spouses who are higher in negative aﬀectivity tend to make less charitable attributions for their partners’ negative behaviors. That is, these spouses are more likely to hold their partners responsible for negative behaviors, whereas spouses who are lower in negative aﬀectivity are more likely to excuse their partners for such behaviors (Karney et al. 1994). Perhaps as a consequence, among newlywed couples, negative aﬀectivity is associated with marital satisfaction, such that spouses who are higher in negative aﬀectivity are likely to evaluate the marriage as a whole more poorly than spouses who are lower in negative aﬀectivity (Karney and Bradbury 1997). The stable tendency to experience negative aﬀect thus appears to aﬀect spouses’ interpretations of the marriage at multiple levels, leading to partners that are perceived as less sensitive and marriages that are perceived as less rewarding.
The eﬀects of each spouse’s personality are not merely intrapsychic, however. In established marriages, the negative aﬀectivity of husbands is associated with the marital satisfaction of their wives, such that the wives of husbands who are higher in negative aﬀectivity tend to be less satisﬁed with the marriage, controlling for their own level of negative aﬀectivity (Karney et al. 1994). One way that the personality of one spouse may aﬀect the satisfaction of the other is through the eﬀects of personality on the behaviors that spouses exchange during their interactions with each other. Indeed, in established marriages, neuroticism is associated with couples’ problem-solving behavior such that more neurotic spouses report feeling more negative than less neurotic spouses immediately after an attempt to resolve a marital problem (Geist and Gilbert 1996). Furthermore, observational coding of spouses’ behavior indicates that more neurotic wives express more negative emotions during conﬂict discussions. Given that the quality of couples’ problem-solving behaviors predicts stability and change in the quality of the marriage over time (Karney and Bradbury 1997), the link between neuroticism and marital interactions may be one way that the personality of an individual may inﬂuence the development of marital quality for a couple.
4. Future Directions
Although research on the interactional consequences of personality has focused almost exclusively on behavior during marital problem-solving interactions, personality may play an even more prominent role in the way spouses solicit and provide each other with social support. To the extent that personality, and in particular negative aﬀectivity, aﬀects the way spouses treat each other and the nature of the stressful events they encounter, then research on the provision of social support in response to stressful events would be a direction for future research that promises to integrate the cumulative and interactional consequences of personality in marriage.
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