Why Marriages Last

This was not the kind of link I expect­ed to get from Slash­dot, but I appre­ci­at­ed it. Very inter­est­ing arti­cle about why mar­riages last.

Task 1. Sep­a­rat­ing from the fam­i­ly of origin
This chal­lenge requires devel­op­ing an inde­pen­dent unit in which the pri­ma­ry rela­tion­ship is with the spouse and the pri­ma­ry iden­ti­ty is as a hus­band or wife, not a son or daugh­ter. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly redefin­ing old bound­aries and forg­ing new ones is a dif­fi­cult process, par­tic­u­lar­ly at the out­set of the mar­riage, and one that is like­ly to be re-vis­it­ed at lat­er stages of the mar­riage such as the birth of a child.

Task 2. Build­ing togeth­er­ness and cre­at­ing autonomy
The sense of ‘we-ness’ is the key to a strong mar­riage. It involves cre­at­ing a com­mon view of the mar­riage while at the same time allow­ing room for each spouse to retain some sense of auton­o­my — not in the sense of retain­ing the lifestyle of an indi­vid­ual before mar­riage but in allow­ing each spouse their sense of self as an indi­vid­ual with­in the sphere of the mar­riage. Cou­ples in three of the stud­ies out­lined above (Klags­brun 1985; Lauer and Lauer 1986; Park­er 2000) made spe­cif­ic ref­er­ences to find­ing, main­tain­ing and adjust­ing the bal­ance between indi­vid­ual and cou­ple. A recur­rent theme in these and oth­er stud­ies is that the mar­riage is seen as almost a sep­a­rate enti­ty in and of itself, the needs of which take prece­dence over the spous­es’ indi­vid­ual needs and some­thing for which com­pro­mis­es and sac­ri­fices are worth­while. How­ev­er, if com­pro­mise and sac­ri­fice are inte­gral to achiev­ing a bal­ance between togeth­er­ness and auton­o­my, there must be a shared sense of fair­ness that allows each spouse some degree of gratification.

Task 3. Becom­ing parents
While par­ent­hood was a defin­ing ele­ment of mar­riage for many of the cou­ples in all the stud­ies described in this paper it may not be as salient for many young cou­ples approach­ing mar­riage or new­ly mar­ried. Adding the new role of par­ent brings both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive changes to the mar­i­tal rela­tion­ship. The chal­lenge from this time for­ward is to bal­ance the needs of the cou­ple rela­tion­ship with the needs of the child — both require nur­tur­ing. As par­tic­i­pants in the Insti­tute’s Mar­i­tal Per­spec­tives Study not­ed, this is increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult in the cur­rent envi­ron­ment where work­ing long hours is required to advance one’s career or sim­ply to put food on the table. In real­is­ing that each role feeds the oth­er, cou­ples in Waller­stein’s study told how they man­aged to take time out from par­ent­ing to nour­ish the part­ner rela­tion­ship, which they knew would, in turn, nour­ish the par­ent-child rela­tion­ship. Aware­ness of the poten­tial harm in neglect­ing the cou­ple rela­tion­ship, not only to the cou­ple but to their chil­dren’s views of mar­riage, was appar­ent in the dis­cus­sions engaged in by par­tic­i­pants in the Mar­i­tal Per­spec­tives Study.

Task 4. Cop­ing with crises
Whether nor­ma­tive or non-nor­ma­tive, long-term or acute, crises affect each spouse dif­fer­ent­ly and have the poten­tial either to strength­en or erode the mar­riage. The cou­ples Waller­stein inter­viewed (all of whom had expe­ri­enced at least one per­son­al or fam­i­ly tragedy) coped with the tragedies they expe­ri­enced in ways that pro­tect­ed the core rela­tion­ship. They kept the cri­sis in per­spec­tive, con­tain­ing their fears as much as pos­si­ble to the actu­al event rather than allow­ing it and their fear, anger and anx­i­ety to intrude on and over­whelm either their mar­i­tal rela­tion­ship or oth­er parts of their lives. They tried to be real­is­tic about the cri­sis and gath­ered infor­ma­tion to inform their respons­es, acknowl­edg­ing and sup­port­ing (some­times not until a cri­sis had passed) each oth­er’s indi­vid­ual ways of cop­ing. Attribut­ing blame either to them­selves or their spouse was avoid­ed and, just as impor­tant­ly, they tried to pre­vent their spouse from self-blame. Where there were signs of an impend­ing cri­sis (for exam­ple, increas­ing depres­sion or sub­stance use) they took action to pre­vent it or min­imise the effects, not allow­ing a poten­tial­ly dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion to get out of hand. And as with many cou­ples in the oth­er stud­ies described in this paper, mak­ing it through crises togeth­er came to be seen as help­ing to fur­ther for­ti­fy the foun­da­tions of the marriage.

Task 5. Mak­ing a safe place for conflict
The mar­riages Waller­stein observed were not with­out con­flict but the spous­es indi­cat­ed that, soon­er or lat­er, they had learned over time that con­flict did not mean the mar­riage was over. The knowl­edge that express­ing anger did not threat­en the mar­riage per se cre­at­ed a space in which spous­es felt safe enough to vent their anger with­in cer­tain agreed para­me­ters. Waller­stein had no evi­dence to lead her to assume these par­tic­u­lar cou­ples were high­ly skilled com­mu­ni­ca­tors; rather they had learned which con­flicts to fight over and which to ignore or accept, and even when fight­ing they remained wary of how their behav­iour was affect­ing their spouse. There were rules that may have been clear­ly artic­u­lat­ed at some point in the rela­tion­ship or that had evolved over time, that reflect­ed the pri­ma­cy of car­ing for the spouse even dur­ing con­flict. One prin­ci­pal rule was that phys­i­cal vio­lence was com­plete­ly unac­cept­able. There was also an aware­ness that attack­ing par­tic­u­lar vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties was unac­cept­able. Con­flict may be an inevitable part of being mar­ried, but cou­ples in Waller­stein’s and oth­er stud­ies stressed the need to be hon­est but tact­ful (for exam­ple, Alford-Coop­er 1998; Lauer and Lauer 1986; Mack­ey and O’Brien 1995).

Task 6. Explor­ing sex­u­al love and intimacy
Sex and inti­ma­cy, either sep­a­rate­ly or togeth­er, played a more or less cen­tral role in the mar­riages of Waller­stein’s par­tic­i­pants, although for some cou­ples there was also an empha­sis on sim­ple touch and affec­tion. Many cou­ples had expe­ri­enced prob­lems in their sex­u­al rela­tion­ship at one time or anoth­er and they spoke can­did­ly of how they had helped each oth­er over­come those dif­fi­cul­ties, evi­dence of the great trust and good­will in these rela­tion­ships. For some cou­ples sex was less impor­tant than the bonds of inti­ma­cy and friend­ship. In Mack­ey and O’Brien’s study, psy­cho­log­i­cal inti­ma­cy was more impor­tant than phys­i­cal inti­ma­cy in their lat­er years. That inti­ma­cy grew over time, based on mutu­al trust, love and under­stand­ing, and deep­ened through shared expe­ri­ences and over­com­ing obsta­cles. In Waller­stein’s study, cou­ples report­ed that their sex life had suf­fered dur­ing times when their lives became more stress­ful, how­ev­er they learned to adapt to the changes in lev­els of desire and activ­i­ty expe­ri­enced by one or both spous­es and gen­er­al­ly it did not become a source of con­flict. While the fre­quen­cy had dimin­ished for most cou­ples as they grew old­er, the excite­ment and enjoy­ment seemed not to have abat­ed at all, espe­cial­ly for those cou­ples whose mar­riages Waller­stein described as ‘roman­tic’.

Task 7. Shar­ing laugh­ter and keep­ing inter­ests alive
The con­tri­bu­tion of humour to a hap­py and last­ing mar­riage is men­tioned so often as to be almost con­sid­ered a giv­en (along with love, trust and respect). Humour pro­vides an emo­tion­al con­nec­tion that goes beyond sim­ply trad­ing jokes. In the every­day light­heart­ed repar­tee in which cou­ples engage there is an inti­ma­cy that strength­ens the bond between them. It is a part of their dai­ly lives to which Waller­stein’s hap­py cou­ples attend­ed, using humour to defuse con­flict and hos­til­i­ty, salve wound­ed egos, or add a spark of play­ful­ness. These cou­ples also expect­ed and pre­pared for change on a range of lev­els. They shared some hob­bies or pas­times and had oth­ers they enjoyed sep­a­rate­ly, both of which help to main­tain their inter­est in each oth­er. Added to their indi­vid­ual engage­ment in the world out­side of their mar­riage, whether in the work­place, edu­ca­tion or some oth­er sphere of life, their sep­a­rate and joint activ­i­ties con­tribute to the sense of know­ing and under­stand­ing anoth­er, and being them­selves known and understood.

Task 8. Pro­vid­ing emo­tion­al nurturance
The mar­riages of the cou­ples in Waller­stein’s study, like those of the par­tic­i­pants in the Mar­i­tal Per­spec­tives Study, pro­vid­ed a haven for each spouse, a place of com­fort and affir­ma­tion. In the sanc­tu­ary of the mar­riage each spouse can find a space to feel and express the full range of emo­tions. These cou­ples had learned over time to suc­cess­ful­ly read their spouse’s moods, their body lan­guage, and had devel­oped respons­es that pro­vid­ed relief, sym­pa­thy, encour­age­ment or sup­port. As par­tic­i­pants in the Mar­i­tal Per­spec­tives Study not­ed, this ’emo­tion­al refu­elling’ can be very dif­fi­cult in a fam­i­ly where there are com­pet­ing demands of two careers and chil­dren. The hap­py cou­ples in Waller­stein’s study devised ways of allow­ing each spouse the time and space to recharge, in the way that worked best for them indi­vid­u­al­ly and as a cou­ple. Joint hol­i­days or time alone, escape from the phone or the chil­dren, or help with work or school assign­ments are some solu­tions they found.

Nur­tur­ing of the spouse was not done with the expec­ta­tion of it being returned in equal mea­sure, for as indi­vid­u­als they would each have dif­fer­ent emo­tion­al needs, nor was it seen as a com­pe­ti­tion in which each kept score. Sim­i­lar­ly, in Alford-Coop­er’s study, cou­ples talked about the need to be pre­pared to give more than receive. Each spouse recog­nised that look­ing after the emo­tion­al needs of their spouse was an inte­gral part of mak­ing the mar­riage work for both of them.

Task 9. Pre­serv­ing a dou­ble vision
‘Dou­ble vision’ refers to the two images of the mar­riage the cou­ples held in their minds: that of images from the past and of the real­i­ties of the present. In sev­er­al of the stud­ies dis­cussed in this paper, cou­ples spoke of mem­o­ries to which they returned reg­u­lar­ly, images that remind­ed them of par­tic­u­lar times or events from their shared his­to­ry, that con­nects their past and present. They were often ide­alised images or mem­o­ries but, as Waller­stein points out, being able to draw on these visions serves to soft­en dis­ap­point­ments and remain opti­mistic when the mar­riage is expe­ri­enc­ing dif­fi­cult times. Hold­ing on to these rosy rec­ol­lec­tions did not mean cou­ples were delud­ing them­selves about the real­i­ty of their spouse and their mar­riage, but for some cou­ples the bond pro­vid­ed by their shared past kept them from tak­ing steps to end the mar­riage (Alford- Coop­er 1998). Part­ners’ views of their spous­es remained cog­nisant of their flaws as well as their strengths, but the dual vision was cru­cial to main­tain­ing the marriage.

Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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