The new couple research can save your marriage-before it starts
It’s clear–more than half of us are not only bad at marriage, we’re lousy at divorce. We’re still doing it in record numbers, but we don’t seem to be learning a thing from the experience: 60 percent of second marriages fail as well. After we face the failure, dry the tears, and explain it all to the kids, we still don’t know how to make relationships work.
So if we don’t learn from our failures, is it possible to learn from others’ successes? With this in mind, a number of researchers began a long-term look at marriage to discover what makes the good ones work. They examined every facet of marital interaction, videotaped every revealing nuance of communication, measured physiologic activity from pulse rate to electrical conductance of skin. Their findings provide nothing short of a blueprint for successful marriage.
Charting the marriage map
Twenty years as a marital therapist made it clear to Liberty Kovacs, Ph.D., that relationships unfold through time–a concept curiously absent in most views of marriage. But it was the lack of any guidelines for helping couples in distress that set her off in search of a framework for assessing their problems. Using her own empirical research, she developed a system to chart the marital relationship as it progresses (and always comes close to undoing) to accommodate two people who are themselves evolving as individuals.
Drawing theoretical bravado from group dynamics as well as psychodynamics, theories of adult development, and family systems, Kovacs contends that marriages evolve through six distinct stages toward intimacy and mutuality. Each of these passages poses specific challenges to individual and couple development. Yet while the progress may thus be predictable, says Kovacs, head of the Center for Marriage and Family Therapy in Sacramento, California, it is definitely not smooth.
The length of a marriage is no guide as to what sort of issues a couple may be stumbling over; some may stay stuck on a single issue for decades. And the development doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion from one stage to the next; rather it is cyclic. “When a couple is hit with stress at any point, they may go back to an earlier stage,” she says. All, however, face power struggles in the middle stages, and even the best don’t see the dawn of mutuality–that easy flow of support and intimacy–before 10 to 15 years.
The most important indicators of individual stages are emotional themes and interaction patterns. In the first stage for example–the mooning, spooning, Juneing phase–the marital partners see each other as perfect and identical. This is necessary for developing a sense of belonging and trust in each other’s commitment to an evolving relationship. Yet as renewed career goals or signs of external interests emerge–as they must–the other partner may view it as betrayal. The task is then to start down the rocky road of accepting differentness as enhancing the relationship.
Similarly, in the second stage, couples experience individual change as disappointment, anxiety, and self-doubt: a “What’s wrong with me?” attitude. Together, their task is to draw a distinct boundary between themselves as a unit and the rest of the world that impinges on it. It takes a strong sense of couplehood to face what happens next.
Over the next three stages, as partners’ interests diverge and develop independently, earlier efforts at accommodation now fall by the boards. Typically, each tries to control the other–a classic power struggle with all the accusation they can muster. Not only do they not agree on anything, they feel that they have lost any connection with each other. This may scare them, but they are more afraid to let down their defenses lest they be controlled by the other. What’s needed is not just the ability to recognize differences but finding new ways of negotiating them–ways of expressing themselves without crushing the other. What more often happens is that she rails while he stomps out of the house.
These scenes may be reenacted for years, even decades, as both play out patterns of behavior absorbed from parents. Likewise, it takes a great deal of time to find strategies to break through such entrenched patterns. Help takes many forms: finding ways of direct self-expression and labeling of feelings–statements that begin “I feel” rather than “He/she always does…”–and reviewing the family of origin to assess what attitudes and behaviors to keep, what to pitch.
By stage four, one or the other may be feeling the impulse to run away from the relationship. “I want time for myself” and “I need some space,” are laments that delineate the discontent. Kovacs feels that separations at this point are good if they allow the partners to “figure out who I am and what I want.”
But one spouse may already be searching for other partners or actively engaging in an affair. Kovacs calls that a diversion from the real issue–finding and completing one’s self. Another relationship only switches the focus to someone else’s needs.
If couples survive the struggles for nurturance, for power, for self, they then enter stage five–the promised land of reaching towards intimacy. “At this point, couples have a full identity to share,” and by stage six realize they can separate and reconnect without losing that identity.
Kovacs firmly believes that marriage is essential for growth and individuation–the elaborating of a distinct self. “First we grow in relation to our parents, then our peers, and then another adult. Only stable, enduring relationships allow individual growth to take place. We need to develop enough trust in a partner for the hidden parts of ourselves to surface. It takes years into a relationship.”
Viewing marriage as a process that unfolds in stages does far more than clue therapists how to help, it gives couples cause for hope even in the midst of misery, relieves some of the anxiety that they are not happy now, and gives them an agenda for working out their problems.
In addition, it affords couples a realistic perspective of duration–that relationships don’t happen overnight but take time. And it helps people abandon the idea of instant gratification. It clues them that you need to go through life making changes–designing your own marriage.
The new writ of relationships takes as a given that no marriage can be constantly happy over the years. Florence Kaslow, Ph.D., director of the Florida Couple and Family Institute in West Palm Beach and clinical professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, puts it this way: “Each partner’s personal development and the normal events of life necessitate continual adaptation, both individually and as a couple.”
In a study of 20 marriages lasting 25 years or more, she identified what distinguishes those couples most satisfied with their relationship. The major factor contributing to satisfaction in all couples was joint problem-solving ability–mentioned by 70 percent of both highly satisfied and mildly satisfied couples, and only 33 percent of the unsatisfied. Indeed, it turns up in virtually every longitudinal study of marriage. For Kovacs, it is what enables couples to navigate the passages of relationships. Howard Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology and head of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, calls it constructive arguing. He finds it is the single biggest predictor of marital success over time.
For the past decade he has been studying 150 couples at yearly intervals (starting before marriage) to identify those factors most responsible for marital success. Couples go through a complete interview, a set of questionnaires, and a talk with each other about the major issues in their lives. The session is videotaped to later observe how couples actually respond and communicate.
“The quality of the couple’s communication before marriage is one of the best predictors of future marital success,” Markman said in a report to the National Institutes of Mental Health. He calls financial and sexual problems “red herrings”–wrongly blamed for breakups and dissatisfaction. “Many people believe that the causes of marital problems are the differences between people and problem areas such as money, sex, children. However, our findings indicate it is not the differences that are important, but how these differences and problems are handled, particularly early in marriage.”
The art of arguing
Couples who are able to successfully resolve problems when they develop have the best chance to go on to a successful marriage. Markman’s results indicate that “problems early in marriage worsen over time rather than get better as many couples expect. Rather than viewing differences and conflicts as a sign of incompatibility, couples need to see them as opportunities for developing skills that they can use for the rest of their relationship.”
Trouble is, says Markman, couples have no opportunity to learn the necessary communication and problem-solving skills. The few who do were lucky enough to grow up among parents who had them. And while the skills can be learned, he says it is urgent for couples to learn them before problems develop. “We have found that couples are more motivated to work on issues when things are going well than when things are terrible.” Besides, most couples early in a relationship form patterns of response that, like shells, harden around them–anger, resentment, depression–and are difficult to change.
So he has developed the five-session Premarital Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) to teach problem-solving skills to about-to-be-married couples. “We teach them the rules and the boundaries for creating constructive conflict.” The latest results show that those who learn constructive arguing before marriage have half the divorce rate of those without such training. There are also lower levels of negative communication and two to three times less physical violence. These couples aren’t just sticking it out, their satisfaction remains consistently higher than that of the control group as they march through the child-rearing years–a time other studies have shown to markedly reduce marital satisfaction.
For the last three years, Markman has been offering his constructive-arguing program in the Denver area. Not only does the love life of couples improve, there are positive effects on the children, on their self-esteem and social development. “PREP gives kids the ability to manage conflict in relationships, and in themselves. The major point is that relationship discord is a significant risk factor for many forms of psychopathology in adults and children,” he says. “Many problems brought to individual psychotherapy are really relationship problems” rather than intrapsychic ones. “First and foremost is depression among women. Our studies show a co-variation of depression and marital problems.” The link is the buildup of negative affect.
As Markman’s studies progress, he is focusing more on the dark side of marriage. “People too often look only at the positive side. But what is central to the marital relationship is the ability to manage negative emotions. Thirty to fifty percent of couples are mutually abusive–now that’s a sign of poor conflict management. Abuse erupts from the frustration of not being able to manage negative feelings.”
Reactions to conflict should be the first line of attack in marital therapy, Markman suggests. But not just any negotiating skills will do. The arguing skills must be learned in the context of the relationship. “Some elements of conflict are relationship-specific,” he says. “Marriage has a unique ability to tap into emotional issues from the families of origin.”
Men and women handle conflict in radically different ways that subvert the relationship. Men flee, women fight; and they stay stuck in this pattern. Some researchers now believe that men simply have more difficulty than women in handling conflict–a result of early experiences, gender stereotyping, and especially, physiology.
Men feel pain differently, according to John Gottman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. His credo is that direct measurements of physiologic response to interaction give a far more reliable picture of what couples are experiencing than merely asking them. His data show that men get more physiologically aroused–their hearts beat faster, they sweat more, and they move more–during marital conflicts, or even just anticipating them.
These signs are so unpleasant that, faced with relationship conflict, men withdraw altogether, a response Gottman calls “stonewalling”–in which the listener presents a stone wall to the speaker. They don’t move the face much, avoid eye contact, hold the neck rigid, and fail to give the usual listener responses. When a husband stonewalls, communication ends and marital satisfaction plummets. At first he physiologically withdraws; later, he withdraws emotionally. He becomes overwhelmed by his wife’s emotions and avoids any conflict with her. She responds by trying to re-engage him–advancing as he withdraws, setting up an escalating pattern of anger and frustration. Miserable as it is, if couples stay in this pattern, there’s some hope. But if the wife counter-defends herself by withdrawing, then essentially the couple is leading separate, parallel lives–heading down two tracks that never intersect. Men pay a high price for their escapist behavior: It precludes any hope for intimacy.
Accentuating the positive
While learning better methods of conflict management may be necessary for happiness, it is not sufficient to ensure it. There’s more to a good marriage, and that, every study shows, is a whole lot of “positive affect”–the expression of affection that keeps the couple at a high level of satisfaction. “Marital conflict by itself is not destructive for a marriage if it also includes positive affects such as humor, positive problem-solving, agreement, assent, empathy, and active non-defensive listening,” Gottman found in his studies.
In Kaslow’s Florida study, couples married 25 years or more were asked to cite the factors they believed contributed to the longevity of their marriage. Forty percent of the satisfied couples stated that they “have fun” together and treasure it. What’s more, both partners agreed it was an element in their satisfaction. Among the couples only mildly satisfied or unsatisfied, fun, humor and playfulness were not even part of the picture. “A great deal of expressed affection” was high on the list of essential ingredients for a good marriage.
“All the positive stuff has to be there,” says Markman of his own study findings. “Attraction. Love. These create a commitment to work at marriage.”
At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where a major study of 373 new couples is now in its fourth of six years, the picture on positiveness is clearly outlined by Elizabeth M. Douvan, professor of psychology and research scientist at the Institute for Social Research. She found that “affective affirmation”–the communication of loving attitudes–is “by far the strongest predictor” of marital quality.
Affective affirmation of the self–unconditional approval from one’s mate-through nonverbal exchange is so powerful in marriage, Douvan finds, that it brings about a remarkable transformation, what her team calls “accommodation.” Each person winds up moving toward the spouse’s innermost ideal of a partner. “If he is accepted for the way he is,” says Douvan, “he winds up doing things her way. And she moves toward his way.”
From the collective efforts of researchers, there is a model of marriage evolving that sees the relationship as a dynamic process of constructing a shared reality. Conflict is a major arena for marital communication and relationship negotiation. Styles of conflict are all-important, and good styles can be learned–the earlier the better. The points where people fail can now be mapped, and clinical researchers are pinpointing where and how help is needed. As Denver’s Howard Markman puts it: “I’m optimistic about the future of marriage.”
The Six Stages of Marriage
1. Romance (Honeymoon) Fusion
2. Expectations Compromise
3. Power Struggle Control
4. Seven-Year Itch Competition
(regardless of time married)
5. Reconciliation Cooperation
6. Acceptance Collaboration