Perhaps the most dramatic shift in American demographics over the last half a century has been the rise in divorce rates. Anywhere between 40% and 60% of marriages that begin today will end in divorce and nearly 20% of marriages will fail within the first five years. Failure rates are even higher for those embarking on a marriage beyond the first.
However one assesses the importance of marriage to wellbeing-and political differences will affect this valuation-there is no denying that when a marriage ends it takes a toll on all those involved, partners and (if applicable) children. Women who divorce are likely to see their standard of living fall, at least temporarily, and men who divorce are likely to see less of their children than they previously did. While those who were in a turbulent or bitter union are likely to experience relief after a divorce, many who divorce report subjective feelings of loss in wellbeing. Moreover, the presence of high divorce rates represents something that society as a whole must contend with-even if only to understand and adjust to new realities. This makes understanding the determinants of long-term marital commitment a priority for social research.
The incidence of divorce is, in the words of social scientists, “overdetermined.” Potential sources for lack of long-term marital stability include demographic and economic shifts, such as increased life span and large-scale entry of women into the workforce (which can reduce barriers to divorce); psychological traits and interpersonal skills; and the presence or lack of social networks to offer life advice, role models and relationship-specific support. Johnson, Caughlin and Huston have suggested that, given the many and overlapping variables that can predict divorce, no successful study of divorce can be conducted unless it seeks to tease apart the various factors that are work in sustaining or undermining marital commitment.
Although most researchers recognize the complexity of the phenomenon of marital commitment, there is surprisingly little research that seeks to understand how individuals themselves understand and narrate the competing and overlapping ideals, pressures, barriers and incentives that enter into a personal decision to end a marriage. After all, for instance, there are marriages that can go on for long stretches without seeming to be “high distress” and still end in divorce. Lower barriers to divorce or political acceptance of divorce could help to understand why a marriage might end. But such variables still do not help us understand how various forms of dissatisfaction or stressors-or various opportunities-crystallize in the mind of a spouse to create a moment where divorce seems both possible and desirable.
This thesis proposes to make a modest contribution to the literature on divorce by approaching that very question. It asks: when reflecting on the choice to divorce, how do divorced individuals assemble the various factors of marital disruption into a coherent story of why and how the decision to divorce became desirable? The goal is twofold: first, to understand how individuals understand and narrate retrospectively the various factors that led to dissatisfaction with their marriage; and second, and more importantly, to understand what precipitates the active choice to divorce (versus the passive recognition of such marital complaints).
The thesis approached the research question through analysis of ten semi-structured interviews with women in their early forties who made the choice to divorce within the past five years. The sample included women only so as to narrow the range of variables that influenced their stories. Moreover, all women included were self-described as middle class, allowing the researcher to approach a group where there were neither high financial pressures precipitating divorce, nor high financial incentives to remain married. Three of the women interviewed were African American, and the remainder were white, with one of the white women also identifying as Latina. Though analysis along racial and ethnic lines in beyond the scope of this work, that measure of diversity allowed for a greater depth and richness to the sample.
The goal of the interview was to elicit two sets of responses. The first was a recounting of the factors that, in the mind of the respondent, constituted the reasons the marriage failed. These were elicited specifically in a list-like form, with no linkages among them. Respondents were merely asked: “What were the problems in your marriage that led to the divorce-could you just describe each of them in turn?” The second response was elicited as a narrative with prompts along the following lines: “Now think back to the time you began to entertain divorce as a serious possibility. Can you describe how you felt at that moment? What were the things that were foremost in your mind? How did your marriage look to you at that time and what were you thinking made divorce a desirable outcome?” The goal in this second part of the interview was to prompt the respondent to re-narrate all the factors she had just enumerated, but as a story: the story of the moment these factors crystallized into a sense that divorce was desirable, feasible and likely. Additional prompts were prepared for each half of the interview to facilitate conversation if the respondent faltered or veered off-topic.
After transcription, the interviews were analyzed along two lines. First, themes were identified and matched to descriptions in the scholarly literature of factors that predict marital disruption. This was a primarily phenomenological strategy of analysis, attempting to understand how each respondent perceived various factors that contributed to marital dissatisfaction and the relative importance she ascribed to each. The second line of analysis was primarily narrative in nature: the researcher sought to understand the story the respondent assembled of the moment she realized she was headed for divorce.
There are obvious limitations to what can be learned from retrospective reflections on an important life decision. Respondents have doubtlessly narrated and re-narrated-for themselves and for others-the reasons for their divorce. Hence the likelihood is high that what they shared in the interviews does not reflect the “raw” state of mind that they had during the period that they were first coming to grips with the decision to divorce. However, by the same token, eliciting these narratives can help to piece together how the many, competing ideas of what causes marriages to fail were experienced by a person who chooses to divorce. The narrative she assembles is, in a sense, a part of the ongoing experience of divorce.
More importantly, listening to how a respondent narrates the decision to divorce can help researchers to understand how a the various competing variables that may contribute to marital instability are converted into an active intention to leave a marriage. Were there new revelations that triggered the decision (an infidelity? An addiction?). If not, was there another trigger of some kind that led her to reassess the possibility that her marriage was failing-and if so what was it? Once she began to contemplate divorce as a real possibility, did she waver? If so, why, and for how long, and with what level of certainty that divorce was actually inevitable? Most of all, how did she take the “list” of various complaints and weave it into a story that helped her make sense of the decision to divorce as desirable? Understanding this can help researchers begin to understand, on an experiential level, how the many factors that predict marital instability become an intention to divorce-and contribute to the stark statistics of failing marriages in the United States.
The State of Marriage in America
The United States can be said to have gone through a “divorce revolution” over the past 50 years. According to recent estimates, of those marriages starting today, approximately half will end in divorce. (Some scholars suggest the rate may actually be as high as 60%.) Moreover, nearly one fifth of marriages will end within five years after the wedding. This is merely the most recent evidence of a steadily increasing rate. From 1960 to 1980, the divorce rate (as measured by number of divorces per 1,000 people aged 15 and older) more than doubled, climbing from 2.2 to 5.2.
Incidence of infidelity is also on the rise. Though infidelity can be measured in various ways, Campbell and Wright suggest that between 20-25% of married Americans will engage in sexual relations outside their marriage at some point. When asked to self-report incidents of infidelity, approximately 32% of men and 21% of women own up to cheating on their partner at some point in marriage. Even people who are newly married report that they are attracted to people outside their marriage and flirt with them or engage in physical and non-physical forms of infidelity.
At the same time as divorce and infidelity have been on the rise, the incidence of cohabitation has risen dramatically as well. Although the relationship between cohabitation and divorce has not been fully explored, there is some evidence that when couples live together before marriage they are more likely to divorce. In 1960, according to estimates based on historical data, approximately 440,000 couples were living together outside of marriage in the United States. By 1990 that number had increased to 2.85 million couples; by 2000 it had reached 4.9 million. Not surprisingly, the rate of out-of-wedlock births has also been on the rise. U.S. Census data reveals that in the years 1930-34, just 8.2% of all first births represented children born out of wedlock. By the period 1960-1964, that figure had risen just slightly to 10.3%. However, by the period 1990-1994, over forty percent of all first births represented children born outside of marriage.
There is no clear consensus on the social results of increasing divorce rates or associated phenomena. Conservative commentators tend to emphasize research showing that there are negative effects on children who come from families of divorce-particularly economic disadvantages, but social ones as well. These commentators tend to assume that the two-parent family is the natural unit for instilling values in children and shaping them into law-abiding citizens. Nor are the spouses and the children the only ones who may be affected. According to Silliman “[r]ecent reviews of marriage studies show that the positive and negative outcomes of marriage have significant physical, emotional, social, and economic impact on partners, children, extended families, and communities.”
People on the other side may well point out that the data showing long-term negative effects on children is inconclusive and that many of the purported outcomes of divorce, such as economic hardship, might well predict divorce more than stem from it. Moreover, they may point out that divorce represents an important source of freedom for women to escape abusive marriages. Indeed, individuals who leave overtly troubled marriages tend to report enhanced wellbeing after divorce. To counter criticism of divorce, one might also point out that divorce does not necessarily represent the end of commitment culturally-after all the majority of individuals who divorce will eventually remarry, and nearly one in every two marriages in a given year represents a remarriage for one or both partners.
However, no matter how one assesses divorce from a moral or political point of view, there is no debating the fact that rising divorce rates are a key feature of contemporary America. And divorce takes serious emotional and financial tolls, even if only in the short term, on every one involved. Therefore, it is important to try to understand what causes the end of marriages. Or put the other way around: it is important to understand what predicts marital commitment. This literature review will cover a wide range of approaches, beginning with basic frameworks for categorizing the sources of marital commitment. From there it will go on to discuss three sets of forces that may act to either promote or weaken commitment to marriage. The first set of forces comprises historical and demographic shifts, including economic shifts. The second set of forces comprises psychological and interpersonal factors, including psychological dispositions and partners’ patterns of communications. The third set of forces includes sources of outside support, “meddling”, reinforcement, or etc. by family, friends and community members. In conclusion, the literature review discusses an important gap in research on marital commitment that the present thesis proposes to address.
Scholars of marital commitment appear to be attracted to groups of three, building framework theories that highlight three types or sources of commitment. For instance, Johnson is often cited for a framework that suggests three sources of an individual’s commitment to marriage: personal, moral, and structural. Similarly, according to Byrd the scholars Adams and Jones identified three dimensions, including attraction, constraints, and morals, which can be fairly easily compared to Johnson’s three dimensions. The personal element represents an internal desire to stay married. People may enter a marriage and build commitment to it because they are attracted either to their partner, or to the idea of the relationship, or both. Role or Identity theory helps elaborate on this personal aspect, by adding the idea that commitment to marriage is fueled by a sense of satisfaction with the role of a married person; if this role becomes less attractive than other actual or potential roles, then commitment may decrease.
A second component is the moral component, which represents a belief that to stray from marriage would be wrong, either because of the commitment made to another person or to the community, or because of the sanctified nature of marriage within a religious framework. A third, the structural dimension, refers to the ways in which individuals feel unable to leave a marriage, perhaps because they are financially dependent on the other person, or because there is a great deal of family and community pressure to stay married cited. This has also been discussed in the literature as “barriers”: “Barriers refer to those bonds that hold a couple together beyond, or in spite of, personal attractions (e.g., status advantages from the marriage, property interests, children)” (Nock para. 9).
It is important to note that within these three sources of commitment, there are two basic types of forces at work: internal and external. Unless an individual is divorced against his or her wishes, the decision whether to stay married is obviously an internal one, involving complicated internal calculations and feelings. However, external forces enter into these calculations at some point and may take a very prominent place within the individual’s internal decision-making. Byrd points out that the scholar Shamir identified both an external and an internal “locus” of commitment. (Similarly, Stanley and Markman identify personal dedication and constraint as the two primary forces affecting a marriage). The external locus includes forces contained in both the moral and the constraint dimensions of Johnson’s paradigm: community approval or disapproval, fear of not being able to survive, religious adherence. The internal includes the ways in which the marriage is central to the individual’s sense of self, and the extent to which the individual values the centrality of the marriage to their sense of self.
However we “get at” the part of marital commitment that is most wholly about personal satisfaction (by referring to it as the “personal” in Johnson’s terms, the attraction component in the terms of Adams and Jones, or the internal locus in Shamir’s theory) it is important to note that the relative potency and significance of the personal dimension itself is subject to historical shifts over time, caused by economic and other external forces. As described more fully below, a number of scholars note that the importance of personal fulfillment in marriage is a relatively new phenomenon that was made possible by more leisure time, women’s entry into the workforce, and a whole new literature and culture of love. Today the majority of Americans choose to marry and remain married for primarily personal reasons -but that emphasis on personal reasons itself is a product of external forces and historical shifts.
Therefore the remainder of this literature review will break down scholarly work on marital commitment into three discussions. The first discussion treats historical and demographic shifts, including economic ones. As noted immediately above, it is impossible to understand how a person values marriage or determines the reason for their commitment without understanding the general historical context, and the economic context, in which they are functioning. This section covers a number of “external” forces that impact marriage commitment, but it recognizes that these external forces are also ideas that are internalized and become part of personal schemas.
The second discussion treats psychological and interpersonal factors. Here, by interpersonal, the goal is to include primarily partners’ ways of communicating with and behaving toward one another. This discussion, in other words, treats the close, emotional sphere of marital commitment: what kind of psychological dispositions does each partner bring and how do the partners interact? Included here is, for instance, work showing that certain personality types or more liable to cheat, as well as work showing that certain communicative styles are fairly consistent indicators of trouble in a marriage.
Finally, the third discussion treats community factors that influence a marriage. As Bortherson and Duncan point out, one source of increasing divorce rates may well be the decline in normative pressures to get married and stay married. That is to say, how friends, relatives, community members and even government workers talk about marriage may affect commitment to marriage. Breaking the phenomenon of commitment to marriage into these component considerations is vital, since “we will never fully understand the nature of commitment unless we stop assuming that commitment is a unitary phenomenon.”
Historical and Demographic Shifts
Historically, marriage has represented a tool for forging social, economic and political alliances, and choice of marriage partners has been more a choice made by families for their children than by the potential partners themselves. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, however, people began marrying more out of love than out of social necessity–and more in search of personal happiness. The shift has been particularly pronounced over recent decades. “Surveys of college students in the 1950s and early 1960s indicate that marriage was valued because it provided a home, a stable and economically secure lifestyle, and the opportunity to raise children. In contrast, more recent surveys indicate that college students value marriage because they expect it to provide a deep source of love and emotional fulfillment.” The Industrial Revolution brought about a rise in the middle classes as well as more leisure time for a great quantity of individuals, both circumstances that allowed the idea of courtship and love to flourish; moreover, the idea of marriage for love came to be enshrined in novels (and eventually movies and television) as a central part of life, increasing the sense that marriage should be for love, not for status, economic stability or political alliance. Meanwhile, as Brotherson and Duncan point out, philosophies of individuality and autonomy, as well as private decision making, were on the rise, and these philosophies and attitudes create an atmosphere more tolerant of personal drives for an elusive state of happiness, as well as personal decisions to divorce.
The shift has been particularly pronounced over recent decades. “Surveys of college students in the 1950s and early 1960s indicate that marriage was valued because it provided a home, a stable and economically secure lifestyle, and the opportunity to raise children. In contrast, more recent surveys indicate that college students value marriage because they expect it to provide a deep source of love and emotional fulfillment” (Amato and Hohmann-Marriott). When newlyweds were asked by a recent study to report their reasons for marrying, 81 % indicated that they married for love. Somewhat ironically, as it turns out, marriages for love tend to be less stable than marriages made for reasons of social, political or economic status. This could be for the simple reason that the search for perfect love places a great deal of pressure on partners and on the relationship itself.
There are other shifts that have created new challenges for marriage. The increase in human life expectancies has created a situation where marriages stretch for longer and longer periods, creating more opportunities for them to break down:
As the human lifespan and length of marriage increased, divorce came to outrank death as the main reason for marital termination. In 1900, two-thirds of marriages ended with the death of a partner, particularly when women died during childbirth. By 1974, divorce surpassed death as the most common way to terminate a marriage, and by the end of the 20th century, divorce was considered both a common and culturally acceptable way to terminate marriage.
Meanwhile, by the 1980’s, all fifty of the states had adopted no-fault divorce laws, making it simpler to leave a marriage.
However, perhaps no demographic shift has been more implicated in the breakdown in marital commitment than the large-scale entry of women to the workforce. Heckert, Nowak and Snyder point out that the transformation from a manufacturing economy to a service-based one allowed more opportunity for women’s participation in the workforce, but also made it more important for women to participate, as wages declined and family survival depended on two incomes. At this point in the United States, most families are two-income families. The shift was most pronounced over the decades 1960 through 1990. According to Heckert, Nowak and Snyder, from 1960 to 1988, the number of marriages in which the male was the sole earner declined markedly, and between 1968 and 1988 the percentage of the male’s contribution to total household income declined steadily. For more than a quarter of married couples in America, the female was the primary wage earner for at least one year in the years 1983 through 1988, and the number of households in which the female was the steadily more powerful wage-earner tripled.
Increased entry of women into the workforce is presumed to have a number of effects on marriage. With their entry to the workforce, women travel more and have more exposure to co-workers and other potential alternative partners; meanwhile, research suggests that both marital disruption and divorce are more likely when one or both spouses have “access to attractive relational alternatives.” Though less well described in the literature, it is also possible that women may derive heightened self-esteem from work, which may make them more likely to forgo an unhappy marriage.
Far and away, however, the largest presumed effect of women’s entry to the workforce has to do with the relative dependency of marriage partners. After all, as described above, constraints on leaving are one major source of marital stability. Nock describes such constraints as “barriers.” Barriers to marital dissolution can be various: from income and the related variable of educational attainment, to the way that household chores (cooking, maintaining finances) are divided and shared, to what Nock calls (following certain economists) “marital-specific capital”-that is, the investment that spouses make in the marriage through everyday decisions and arrangements, their patterns and habits that make it more costly to think about leaving one another. Of all these barriers, income is the one most consistently understood to affect marital outcomes. Simply put, the theory is that as women become more educated and enter the workforce in greater numbers, they have more freedom to leave.
That said, it is important to note that research reveals that the effect of income on marital stability consistently registers lower than expected. For instance, Heckert, Nowak and Snyder, who used data on 5,000 households to study the issue, found that “[a]s predicted, the relative earnings of husbands and wives are an important determinant of disruption, although the effect is nonlinear” (emphasis added). In other words, there was no direct effect of a woman’s relative earnings on marital commitment-it only produced an effect when acting through other variables.
They did find that, when directly comparing couples where the male as the primary wage earner to couples where the female is the primary wage earner, the second type of couple is more than twice as likely than the first to experience a marital disruption in the course of a given yea. However, overall they found that the best predictor of marital disruption or marital stability was something that had nothing to do with women’s entry into the workforce-namely “developmental dependencies,” or put differently, the length of marriage and the couples’ dependence on one another built up through the course of everyday life. (This is what Nock might otherwise call “marital-specific capital,” Nock para. 21). The results of the work by Heckert, Nowak and Snyder suggests that with each year of continued marriage, the odds of a marital disruption fall by 6%.
Research by Nock conducted in 1995 also suggests that we should be careful when attributing increases in divorce mainly to women’s increased earning power. Nock used a sample of more than 5,600 adults, a subset of the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH), to investigate the relationship between dependency and marital commitment. His hypothesis was that dependency increases commitment to marriage-or put differently, that increasing levels of economic freedom can predict decreasing levels of commitment. The NSFH included extensive questions about peoples’ home lives and social background. For married respondents, the following was asked:
“Even though it may be very unlikely, think for a moment about how various areas of your life might be different if you separated. For each of the following areas, how do you think things would change?: (a) your standard of living, (b) your social life, (c) your career opportunities, (d) your overall happiness, your sex life, (f) being a parent.”
Adjustments were made for respondents that had no children. And then each respondent was asked to describe how his or her spouse would respond to the same set of questions.
The research is worth describing in detail, because what Nock found was somewhat surprising. Income did have an inverse relationship to marital commitment for both spouses; the higher one’s share of total family income, the lower one’s commitment appeared to be, and this was particularly true for women respondents. (Additionally, for women, relative levels of occupational prestige are proved to have an inverse effect on commitment). Hence women’s entry into the workforce can truly be said to have had a significant effect on rates of marital commitment. However, Nock also found that the variable having the most serious effect on marital commitment was “the imagined level of the spouse’s commitment to the marriage.” Moreover, he found that husbands and wives could not accurately predict the level of the other’s commitment to the marriage, so that [t]he reality of the spouse’s commitment (i.e., the level reported by the spouse) . . . is considerably less important than what one imagines it to be.” This, in turn, indicates that psychological and interpersonal factors may well play as much or more of role in marital commitment as structural factors such as the rise in women’s relative earning power.
Psychological and Interpersonal Factors
One thing to keep in mind in any discussion of the psychological and interpersonal dynamics of strain on commitment is that couples will have distinct interactional styles; there is no one size fits all approach to long-term unions. This idea is well documented by Fitzpatrick as discussed in Solomon, Knobloch and Fitzpatrick. Different individuals bring different expectations to marriage, yielding at least three distinct marital “schema” or guiding conceptions. These schema allow Fitzpatrick to group individuals as Traditionalists, Independents, and Separates. Traditionalists hold fairly conventional ideas about love, marriage, fidelity and gender roles; they value stability over spontaneity, evolution and change; and they prefer to have a good deal of interdependence and sharing within a marriage.
Independents are at the other end of the spectrum. They tend to value change and dynamic evolution in relationships; they are less rigid about gender roles; while they value psychological closeness they also tend to be concerned with maintaining their own separate space within the household. Moreover, Independents are likely to confront problems early and outright, whereas Traditionalists will tend to confront problems only when they are considered very important. A third category comprises Separates, who tend to maintain their own space and place great importance on daily routines and schedules to maintain harmony within the household. This group of partners prefers avoidance to direct confrontation over marital problems.
As might be expected, different types of partners with different marital schema are likely to find various personality traits and interpersonal styles work for them to maintain a marriage. That said, research also suggests that there are certain interpersonal behavioral patterns that tend to predict marital instability across a range of personality types. High on this list are four patterns identified as criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Criticism implies the tendency to attack a partner’s character rather than the partner’s specific behaviors. Contempt implies behaviors that show disgust or disdain for a partner and are intentionally meant to wound that partner. Defensiveness implies an unwillingness to assume responsibility for problems that have been identified-denial of agency or involvement. And lastly, stonewalling implies detachment and either emotional or physical withdrawal in the face of conflict. All four of these forms of interpersonal interaction are high predictors of marital instability.
Further, researchers have identified two types of repetitive forms of interaction that are most likely to lead to marital dissolution. One is the “hostile/engaged” form of relationship, where partners argue frequently and often escalate into yelling and heated argument. A second is the “hostile/detached” form of relationship, in which partners similarly have frequent disputes but have “cold” rather than “hot” forms of engagement and tend to argue in brief episodes. These interactional patterns are more likely than others to lead to divorce.
Conversely, couples who approach marriage and commitment as an active and ongoing process rather than taking an idealized approach to what a marriage is tend to be more flexible as problem solvers and respond more constructively to conflict. This form of flexibility is particularly important in the face of a new landscape of marriage where traditional gender roles and “rules” for familial behavior may no longer apply. The same kinds of interpersonal skills that predict success in the workplace-the ability to negotiate differences and work with others to solve problems-helps to predict marital stability. “Well-adjusted couples consistently demonstrate self-control, empathy, and constructive conflict resolution in mastering life challenges.” Intriguingly, in a study of committed Christian married couples, the partners’ expressions of commitment to traditional marriage values was less highly correlated with marital satisfaction than is the ability to demonstrate such interpersonal skills.
Research by Solomon, Knobloch and Fitzpatrick offers further insight into stability and/or dissolution of marriage, albeit through a model that is one step removed from the scene of divorce. They investigate what situations are likely to have a “chilling effect” on a partner’s willingness to complain about the other partner’s behaviors. Of course, complaints and arguments can cut various ways: in a good relationship, it can be healthy to bring grievances to one’s partner. Nor is there any definitive reason to suspect that retreat from complaints will assure the stability of a marriage; as noted above, Campbell and Wright cite to research suggesting that “stonewalling,” or retreat from open dialog about problems, is in fact an indicator of a troubled marriage.
That said, it is reasonable at least to assume that some of the same factors that enter into the decision to withhold complaints may in fact reflect a form of commitment, even temporary commitment, to a relationship. In this sense the research by Solomon, Knobloch and Fitzpatrick is useful at least for illuminating the situations in which couples are likely to try to maintain an even keel in their relationship. Not surprisingly, perhaps, a partner is less likely to complain when they perceive their partner/spouse has other attractive alternatives; when they themselves lack attractive alternatives; situations where a partner perceives that their partner has other attractive alternatives; situations where the partner lacks alternatives; and troublingly, when their partner appears likely to engage in some kind of punitive behavior, such as violence. In this last circumstance, the chilling effect is particularly pronounced with respect to the aggressive partners’ controlling behavior; where, e.g., a woman fears her partner will become violent, she is particularly likely to refrain from criticizing ways that he attempts to assert control over her, as such complaints are perceived as being likely to lead to punitive behavior.
Finally, it is also important to note that some marriages dissolve without a long history of discord: some spouses may fight infrequently, feel moderately happy (rather than unhappy) with their marriages, continue to engage in some positive interaction with their spouses, and perceive a few but not a large number of problems in their marriages. These spouses may seek a divorce, not because the quality of their marriages is at rock bottom but because they have low levels of commitment to marriage as a lifelong relationship, hold high expectations for marriage, perceive few barriers to leaving their relationships, and believe that viable alternatives to their current partners are available. In these cases, standard marital quality indicators will not be good predictors of subsequent marital dissolution.
Such “low-distress marriages” often reveal external risk factors that are similar to those of high distress marriages, including marrying young, having more family income/employed female partners, cohabiting before marriage, and coming from divorced families. However, such low-distress marriages that end in divorce may not show the same signs of low quality, bickering and unpleasantness as are seen in high distress ones.
Couples exist in social contexts larger than the dyad and they are susceptible to the influences of members of their social networks. In some cases this influence represents a barrier to exiting a marriage as the partners fear disapproval from members of their social networks should they opt for divorce. This fear may simply be anticipatory, or it may result from the direct pressures to remain committed that friends and/or relatives place on a couple that appears headed for divorce. “When such pressures come from people whose opinions matter, individuals may feel constrained to continue a relationship even when they feel little personal or moral commitment.”
In other cases, influence from social networks is more direct and represents a force of facilitation rather than a barrier. As discussed above, interpersonal skills are key to sustaining marital commitment. Where partners do not learn these skills within their families of origin, they may gain such skills from supportive members of their networks. Peers may also support couples by offering positive comments about the couple and inviting them as a couple to social events. Finally, members of social networks may offer their direct assistance when there is marital discord. They may convey information from one partner to another, acting as go-betweens, or they may simply offer consolation and advice. (By the same token, members of social networks may contribute to marital disruption by reinforcing a partner’s feelings of discontent. “Studies of romantic relationships show that individuals who perceive greater support from friends and family for their relationship at one time not only report higher commitment at a later time, but also score higher on other measures of dyadic formation” (Bryant and Conger). Similarly, spouses who socialized within shared social networks tend to have more satisfying and enduring marriages than those who socialize separately within separate groups of friends.
Research by Bryant and Conger into the specifics of peer group support showed that the strongest form of support peers could offer was “relationship-specific”-that is to say, it was support directed specifically at the couple as a couple. However, the researchers also found that the process of support may well be a cyclical. Supportive networks may engender stronger marriages, which in turn may engender stronger peer networks.
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