Some new studies shed light on what can unravel a marriage (or equivalent relationship) – all the way to divorce. Or, what can make it stronger for the long-term. These studies are worth learning from, for both reasons. But I think the findings also underscore that a transformation is underway in the kinds of relationships people are looking for that will provide a sustaining relationship, emotionally, sexually and spiritually. And if it doesent, when it’s healthier to leave.
For example, one study finds that women are more likely then men to seek a divorce as they become dissatisfied with their relationship; and that greater likelihood is related to how men tend perceive and deal with their own dissatisfaction in their marriages. The research, from Stanford University, found that women initiated nearly 70% of all divorces.
It was based on a survey of over 2000 heterosexual couples, and I find that the data are consistent with what we see clinically, when men and women seek couples therapy and then subsequently divorce. Or, when one partner seeks individual therapy about a marriage conflict, and the marriage also ends in divorce, That is, it’s most often the woman who expresses more overt conflict and dissatisfaction about the state of the marriage; and is more likely to act upon it. In contrast, the man is more likely to report feeling troubled, but mostly about his wife’s dissatisfaction. But overall is largely “OK” with the way things are. He’s more content to lope along as time passes, as though things are “good enough.”
This study’s lead author, Michael Rosenfeld, suggests that women may be more likely to initiate divorce because, overall, they reported lower levels of relationship quality than married men. He added that the data support the view that some women experience marriage as oppressive or uncomfortable. And, that may be related to how men behave within the relationship.
That is, Rosenfeld says, “I think that marriage as an institution has been a little bit slow to catch up with expectations for gender equality. Wives still take their husbands’ surnames, and are sometimes pressured to do so. Husbands still expect their wives to do the bulk of the housework and the bulk of the childcare.”
Of course, these findings may be more characteristic of the declining traditional marriage. But they still reflect suffering and conflict that many married couples experience. For example, another study, from Rutgers University and published in the Journal of Gerontology, examined the kinds of negative emotions most often reported by people who are married for a long time, such as sadness, worry and frustration. The research found that men and women in long-term marriages deal with those negative emotions differently – with different consequences.
“The men don’t really want to talk about it or spend too much time thinking about it,” said the lead author, Deborah Carr, in a summary of the research findings. “Men often don’t want to express vulnerable emotions, while women are much more comfortable expressing sadness or worry.”
That is, women have a positive experience when they receive a lot of support from their husband. But men “…may feel frustrated receiving lots of support from their wife, especially if it makes them feel helpless or less competent.” Carr added, “Men who provide high levels of support to their wives may feel this frustration if they believe that they would rather be focusing their energies on another activity.”
But Here’s What Makes A Difference
In contrast to these somewhat bleak findings, another study finds that feeling appreciated and valued by your partner tends to strengthen your marriage (or equivalent committed relationship). It increases your belief about how enduring your relationship will be, over time.
Published in the journal Personal Relationships, this research from the University of Georgia was based on surveys of 468 married couples. Its core finding was that a partner’s expression of gratitude was the most consistent significant predictor of marital quality.
“It goes to show the power of ‘thank you,'” said the study’s lead author Allen Barton. “Even if a couple is experiencing distress and difficulty in other areas, gratitude in the relationship can help promote positive marital outcomes.” Added co-author Ted Futris, “…when couples are engaging in a negative conflict pattern like demand/withdrawal, expressions of gratitude and appreciation can counteract or buffer the negative effects of this type of interaction on marital stability.”
The study also found that higher levels of gratitude towards your partner protected men’s and women’s divorce proneness from the negative effects of poor communication during conflict. According to Barton, “This is the first study to document the protective effect that feeling appreciated by your spouse can have for marriages. It highlights a practical way couples can help strengthen their marriage, particularly if they are not the most adept communicators in conflict.”
Feeling and showing gratitude in relationships go a long way in building and maintaining positive, mutually supportive connections. In my view, this study links with other patterns common to couples who sustain positive connection. For example, what I’ve described in another article about “radical transparency.”
More broadly, it’s interesting to observe that younger couples – who are more likely to form non-marital but committed relationships — experience more egalitarian partnerships to begin with. When their relationship crumbles beyond repair, both experience that disintegration. Both are equally likely to address it – and part, if it can’t be healed. That coincides with what was reported in the Stanford study – that women and men in non-marital relationships reported equal levels of relationship quality, are more adaptable and equally likely to separate. I think that’s part of a much broader shift towards acceptance of a variety of types of intimate relationships increasingly embraced by men and women today.
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