Life and marriage

May 30, 1997

A study of newly-weds has shed light on the factors which make or break the marital bond. Frank Fincham explains

Sue and Allen's marriage over the last year was a rocky one. The pressures of a new baby, a mortgage, and work were high. Sometimes they had good days, where some of the close feelings returned. But mostly, it seemed that they were arguing constantly. How did that happen?" This is not an unusual story. Four in ten marriages in the United Kingdom end in divorce. Being in an unhappy marriage is associated with mental and physical health problems, while a good relationship can inoculate the individual against a range of negative health outcomes and psychological problems.

What psychological factors are associated with marital distress? Are they a cause or consequence of the distress? Why do relationships follow different paths over the years? Scientific methods can help us find the answers, providing a systematic way of finding out what really happens to couples rather than relying on hearsay.

My research on marriage was prompted by experiences in counselling. Having often met couples who blamed each other for difficulties in the relationship, I began research on thought processes in distressed and happily married couples. Several studies have now found a link between marital happiness and how partners explain events. For example, if a husband is late from work, a distressed wife tends to blame this on her partner's characteristics, such as selfishness. Happily married spouses often explain negative behaviour through factors outside the partner's control, such as heavy traffic or work pressures.

One might expect that such explanations for a partner's behaviour would reflect rather than determine levels of marital satisfaction. Not so. My finding, in four projects, is that these explanations affect marital satisfaction 12 and 18 months later. The opposite is not true. Marital satisfaction does not alter explanations of one partner's behaviour by another.

Most recently, I have extended research on thought processes to include those outside an individual's awareness. Research on thought processes depends on spouses being able to pinpoint and describe how they perceive and interpret their partner's behaviour. The speed at which we have measured such interaction unfolding suggests that spouses do not think consciously about much of their partner's behaviour. So we need to study rapid thought processes outside conscious awareness to understand fully the interaction between couples.

One factor may be the extent to which a spouse interprets partner behaviour in terms of their overall feelings towards the partner. Psychologists have found that reactions to an event are often strongly influenced by constructs that are "close to the surface" or readily accessible. This is particularly so when, as in much social behaviour, events lend themselves to different interpretations. But does this happen in marriage?

In a recent study we used the time it took to make evaluative judgements of the partner as a measure of the accessibility of overall feelings about the marriage - fast responders have more accessible evaluative judgements than slow responders. This measure, of millisecond differences in responses, helped predict responses to marital events, suggesting that automatic reactions outside conscious awareness are important in understanding why partners react the way they do.

Some couples maintain highly accessible positive evaluations of their partner and marriage over many years. This governs how they respond in future events. In other couples, the experience of living in a marriage means that negative evaluations become highly accessible, making negative responses to partner actions much likelier.

A new study of newly wed couples by Cardiff's school of psychology should provide a better understanding of marriage and its development by testing these ideas. The study is at the cutting edge of research on marriage. It will also inform marital therapy and premarital counselling.

Frank Fincham is professor in psychology at the University of Wales, Cardiff. Couples married in the past 12 months or planning marriage in 1997, should contact the Newly Wed Couples Line (01222 874932), if they wish to participate in the Newly-Wed study. Participation is confidential.

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