Making Your Marriage Work: Part 1

by Edward A. Dreyfus, Ph.D.

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  • A 30 year old female says, "My first husband will be the one with whom I have children; my second husband will be my life partner."
  • A 29 year old male says, "I am not going to get married; the probability of divorce is too great."
  • A 32 year old female says, "Marriage simply doesn't work."

It's no wonder that folks are pessimistic about the future of marriage. Half of all the couples marrying today will end in divorce. In previous generations it is common to hear that a couple was celebrating their twenty-fifth, thirtieth, or even fiftieth wedding anniversary. Will any of the current generation celebrate these milestones? What can people do to increase the probability of a long and satisfying marital relationship?

Marriage today is far more complex. In previous generations each partner knew what was expected of him or her; roles were defined. If each partner filled those expectations, there was a reasonably good chance that the marriage would endure. Even personality styles were prescribed. Men were supposed to be strong, silent, competent, unemotional, problem-solvers, good providers, handy around the house and protectors. Women were supposed to be good cooks, competent housekeepers, seamstresses, social, religious and nurturers. Men and women cut each other a great deal of slack in other areas, so long as each played by the prescribed rules and played their socially defined roles.

With the technological evolution, the women's movement and increased life expectancy, came a profound change in these traditional roles. People began to question what they wanted out of marriage. Families relied more upon hired domestic help in the form of housekeepers, caregivers and day care to fulfill many of the customary roles. Marriage began to take on a different meaning and serve a different purpose than was traditionally the case. If we add to this mix the awareness that we simply live longer than in previous generations, it becomes obvious that "until death do us part" means a lot longer than at any time in history.

Despite all of these changes, most people enter marriage carrying with them many of the same beliefs appropriate for the previous traditional marriage. Their consciousness has not caught up with the reality of the times. Hence, when they marry they often find that their traditional beliefs are ineffective, leaving them with few guidelines on how to be in a marriage. In order to learn more about how people maintain long-term marriages, and what some of the impediments to them might be, psychologists went out into the field to learn more.

Psychologist Dr. Howard Markman at the University of Denver believes that "Love and commitment to the relationship are necessary for a good marriage, but they are not enough. What are needed, on top of that, are skills in effective communication and how to handle conflict." Dr. Markman, along with Dr. Clifford Notarius of Catholic University of America, studied 135 about-to-be-married couples. "How you handle conflict is the single most important predictor of whether your marriage will survive," according to Dr. Markman. These researchers found that certain behavior patterns usually signaled an impending collapse in the marriage:

  1. When either partner -- although it is most often the male -- withdraws from conflict.
  2. The tendency to escalate conflict in the face of disagreement and the inability to stop fights before they get ugly.
  3. The tendency to invalidate the relationship by hurling insults at each other. Dr. Markman says, "one 'zinger' counteracts 20 positive acts of kindness."

You should note that neither Wallerstein nor Markman say that we should avoid conflict. Conflict in marriage is inevitable. How we deal with conflict is the important issue. Part 2 of this series on "Making Your Marriage Work," will offer some practical, research based, suggestions for enhancing your marriage.

Link to Part 2

5/29/98

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Dr. Edward A. Dreyfus is a Licensed Psychologist, Licensed Marriage, Family, & Child Therapist, Certified Sex Therapist and Certified Group Psychotherapist. He practices individual, group, marital and sex therapy, career counseling and divorce mediation in Santa Monica, CA. His book, Someone Right For You, is available through the Amazing Bookstore Catalog.

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