Although the prevailing view among some psychotherapists is that marital difficulties result from psychological problems in one partner or the other, the consensus among most marital researchers is that personality is less crucial to marital success than is the nature of the relationship itself. As the late Nathan Ackerman, a pioneering family therapist put it, even two neurotics can have a happy marriage.
As long ago as 1938, Lewis Terman, a Stanford University psychologist who was better known for his studies of intelligence, published findings he hoped would bring clarity to what he called ''the chaos of opinion on the determiners of marital happiness.''
Dr. Terman discovered that most of the opinions of the day on what was required for a happy marriage were dead wrong. For example, his research found little or no relationship between the frequency of sexual intercourse and marital satisfaction.
That finding has held up over the years. In a 1978 study of 100 happily married couples, it was found that 8 percent had intercourse less than once a month, and close to a quarter reported having intercourse two or three times a month. Most couples reported having intercourse one to three times a week. Two of the couples had no intercourse, while for one couple the rate was daily.
Moreover, one-third of the men and two-thirds of the women reported a sexual problem, such as difficulty getting an erection in men and difficulty reaching orgasm in women. And both men and women complained of such difficulties as inability to relax and a lack of interest in sexual activity. Even though the couples with sexual complaints reported being dissatisfied with their sex lives, they still felt their marriage to be ''working'' and happy.
The precursors of later marital success or failure can be detected in the earliest stages of a marriage, according to Howard Markman, a psychologist at the University of Denver. Writing in ''Marital Interaction'' (Guilford Press), Dr. Markman reports on a study in which 26 couples were regularly observed while discussing their problems over a period of almost six years, beginning just before their marriage. By the end of the study, eight of the couples had separated or divorced.
The best predictor of the couples' satisfaction after five-and-a-half years of marriage was how well they communicated before the marriage.
'Private Language' of Couples
Other research has found that happily married couples seem to develop a ''private language,'' a set of subtle cues and private words that have meaning only to them. Researchers at the University of Illinois found that in happy marriages husbands were much better than were strangers at understanding exactly what their wives meant. But in distressed marriages, strangers were as adept at understanding messages from wives as were their own husbands.
Likewise, happily married couples show a high degree of responsiveness to each other in sharing events of the day. The absence of such responsiveness can lead to heightened tensions, according to John Gottman, the leader of the research group at the University of Illinois. Dr. Gottman said he believes the friendship built up through such day-to-day exchanges makes couples willing to go through the difficuties of repairing their relationship when it becomes strained.
One of the striking differences between the satisfied and distressed couples in the University of Denver study was in how they viewed the way they talked over their problems. The wives were aware of stress even when it was not readily apparent to others. But the husbands weren't.
In a series of studies, Dr. Markman and his colleagues had objective observers and the partners themselves rate how ''positive'' - by which Dr. Markman means friendly - or ''negative'' - that is, hostile, the spouses were during discussions of problems.
In unhappy couples, husbands seemed oblivious to the hostility of their wives in some of these conversations, although objective observers noted it.
The wives were sure their husbands were hostile, although the observers said the husbands, for the most part, did not seem to be especially difficult during these encounters.
The husbands' seeming lack of hostility was consistent with the widely observed tendency among husbands to avoid confrontation while wives seem more ready to engage it.
But why did the wives in these unhappy couples see the husbands as hostile? Dr. Markham suggests that the wives tend to be more sensitive to trouble in a marriage than husbands. Evidently, they were reading the true stress in their marriage into their husbands' behavior even though the behavior did not overtly reflect it.
''This does not mean that wives are the cause or the victims of marital distress,'' said Dr. Markman, but rather that the wives are better barometers of problems in the marriage than are the husbands.
In general, women are more comfortable with confrontation because - in happy marriages, at least - they more readily can end the fight by switching from a hostile stance to a conciliatory one, according to Dr. Gottman.
Husbands, in Dr. Gottman's research - even happy ones - were less able to make this switch in the heat of an argument.
In unhappy marriages, the wives no longer seemed willing to play this role, according to Dr. Gottman. Men Withdraw, Women Argue
As the emotional tone of a marriage becomes more negative, men are more likely to react by withdrawing, while women are more likely to escalate emotional pressure, becoming more coercive and argumentative. The result is often an escalating cycle of pressure from the wife and withdrawal by the husband, a cycle that happily married couples seem better able to prevent.
''All couples go through ups and downs in marriage,'' Dr. Markman said in an interview. ''But it's those couples who don't communicate well whose marriage is more likely to be the victim of such a difficult period.''
Couples planning to marry who were trained by the University of Denver group in a range of marital skills were, after three years, still as happy as they werejust before their marriage. But other couples who did not receive the training showed ''dramatic declines in overall satisfaction,'' Dr. Markman said.
'Inevitable Push-Pull in Marriage '
Occasional tensions, of course, are inevitable in any marriage. A psychoanalytic view of marriage holds that each partner unconsciously gravitates to someone whom they see as fulfilling a deeply held need. The two most prominent of these needs exist in a state of tension: the desire for intimacy, on the one hand, and the need to establish one's identity as a separate person on the other. Marriage thus becomes a forum for the negotiation of a balance between these conflicting urges.
''There's an inevitable push-pull in marriage,'' said Michael Kolevzon, a professor of social work at Virginia Commonwealth University. ''As a couple's intimacy increases, you often see a corresponding increase in their desire for distance. How satisfied they will be in the marriage depends to a great extent on how they communicate these needs.''
''Anger is one means this balancing act is negotiated in marriage,'' Dr. Kolevzon added in an interview. ''Sometimes it's a way to ask for distance: I'll get angry with you so I can justify being alone for a while. Or with some people their anger is actually a plea for intimacy. They build up to an angry confrontation so it can resolve into intimacy as an affirmation that their spouse loves them despite their faults.''
Programs Teach Marital Skills
The new research is leading to programs for couples who are about to be married. The programs are designed to strengthen those skills that seem to help couples weather the stresses and changes that challenge a marriage. These programs teach a range of marital skills that concentrate on communication, including these:
- The couples are taught to focus on one topic at a time and to make other preoccupations clear, such as ''I may seem angry because I had a bad day at work.''
- They are also trained to ''stop the action'' until the partners cool down when repetitive cycles of conflict begin. One of the major signs of distress in a couple is escalating hostility, often in the form ofnagging that provokes an angry respones. The escalation seems unstoppable once begun.
- By being specific in criticizing or praising a spouse's actions, the couples learn how to prevent nebulous complaints that often trigger arguments. Thus, a spouse might say, ''When I see your coat on the floor, I feel you are not doing your share around the house and I feel taken advantage of,'' instead of ''You're a slob.''
- The couples also learn to edit what they say, so as to avoid saying things that would needlessly hurt a spouse. ''It's especially unproductive to dredge up past events and old grudges during a fight,'' Dr. Kolevzon said.Continue reading the main story
Tip: This section should include your thesis sentence and will determine if you are for or against gay marriage.
Seed - Starting Sentence Option 1: Gay marriage is a [controversial/polarizing/contentious] topic that has been in the news [quite frequently/very often/a lot] lately. Gay marriage [is/is not] a threat to heterosexual marriages and I [feel/believe] that [state your belief here].
Seed - Starting Sentence Option 2: [Unfortunately/Fortunately], gay marriage is being legalized in some areas. While it’s a [controversial/difficult/questionable] decision, the ruling is one that some, including myself, are [happy/upset] about. Gay marriage is [state your belief].
- Banning gay marriage is discrimination and classification of human beings based on value.
- According to the 14th Amendment in the US Constitution, all people are to be considered equal, which would also apply to marriage.
- Traditionally, marriage is between a man and a woman and this should not be changed.
- Marriage is meant to be for procreation. As gay couples cannot physically reproduce, they have no reason to marry.
The Vatican’s Views on Homosexual Marriages
Marriage Equality Facts
Family Research Council