Characteristics of good and bad marriages studied


12/3/1987 The December Issue of Psychology Today arrived a few days ago. One of the articles caught my attention, mainly because of the title: “Making the Most of Marriage,” by Alfie Kohn.

Like many other articles in Psychology Today, this one is a review of some fairly recent research. One of the focal points was “What distinguishes marriages that flourish form those that fail to satisfy – or simply fail?

Carolyn and Philip Cowan of the University of California (Berkeley) found that “after two years of marriage, marital satisfaction drops sharply for new parents and stays stable for childless couples.” Because of the demands of the new baby, adjusting to in-laws and perhaps dual careers, the authors note the marriage often gets put on the back burner.

But, according to the Cowans, the key factor in determining which married couples with children end up in trouble depends on “how a couple was feeling about the quality of the marriage before the baby came along. The status of the marriage at the time of conception or birth. Rather than the baby itself, may be a key factor in determining marital outcome.

The article quotes another study of Arlene Skolnick, also at U.C. Berkeley. They found that an individual’s self-confidence – including a conviction that one is neither inadequate nor victimized – is a factor for both men’s and women’s marital satisfaction. Skolnick concludes that self-confidence “not only makes you happier, it makes your spouse happier, too.”

Another recent study of psychologist Elizabeth House of Denver concludes that there are troubled marriages today “when you have a very stereotypical male and a very stereotypical female.” Regardless of whether both partners or only one partner was a wage-earner, greater satisfaction with companionship was reported by couples who were high on cross-sex characteristics. That is, the wife had some social interests that were traditionally deemed to be “masculine” and husbands were inclined to have some “feminine” interests by traditional classification.

Still other research suggests that marrying someone much like yourself may be critical, but other factors are equally, if not more, important in marital satisfaction.

Richard W Lewak, a psychiatrist in California, suggests that “people often marry those whose intelligence is comparable to their own. But once selection for similar IQ occurs. IQ variables do not have any further relationship to marital satisfaction. When it comes to marital happiness, similarity is just not as big an issue as matters like trust and relating openly to your partner.

And if the husband is paying an excessive amount of attention to his marriage, that is not necessarily a good sign, according to psychologist Linda Acietelli, from Michigan. She notes “when things are going well, women are more likely than are men to be attentive to the relationship. But if men are more attentive than usual, it’s like fireworks for the woman. The amount of time that men talk about their marriage is (inversely) related to the stability of the relationship as they and their wives perceived it.

So women column-readers take note: If you have an inattentive, inattentive husband it may according to psychologist Linda Acitelli, actually be a sign of his marital contentment. And what’s that old advice about not waking a sleeping giant? Or, at least be careful before trying to engage one in meaningful conversation about marriage.

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