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Does Marital Satisfaction Predict Divorce?

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One of the most consistent findings about marriage is the marital satisfaction declines over the course of marriage. One recent study that followed couples over a 15-year time frame found that the decline in marital satisfaction persisted over the entire time period and that the reduction was substantial.

Why doesn't everyone get divorced? These findings give us pause and prompt the question, if marital satisfaction declines substantially, why doesn't everyone get divorced? Gilad Hirshberger and colleagues recently completed a study (published in Personal Relationships ) in which they looked at the role of marital satisfaction in divorce and the process of attachment security in relationships. They followed about 100 couples over a 15 year time frame from the birth of their first child through the child's adolescence.

These scientists were interested in two questions-- what is the relationship between husband and wives' marital satisfaction and divorce? And what is the relationship between attachment security and divorce?

Surely marital dissatisfaction predicts divorce. This connection seems obvious. A more interesting question is the timing of low marital satisfaction and divorce. Do couples who start out low on satisfaction end up divorcing or does marital satisfaction decline to some point that triggers divorce? Another question is whether marital satisfaction of wives, husbands or both is related to divorce.

Marital dissatisfaction has a limited relationship to divorce. Despite the commonsense idea that marital satisfaction should be related to divorce, it is not a particularly robust predictor. Hirshberger and colleagues found that their measure of marital satisfaction immediately before divorce was not predictive of divorce. Likewise, there was no evidence that there were initial differences in "satisfaction" in the early stages in marriage that seemed to lead to divorce. The only finding linking marital satisfaction to divorce was husband's dissatisfaction around the time the first child entered school which was on average when most couples had been married eight years. This finding is consistent with other research findings that suggest that husbands have more positive perceptions of marriage and that this buffers the couple's experiences during difficult moments. So when they become more distressed, there is increased likelihood of divorce.

What about attachment security? Another dimension that was explored in this study was "attachment security." This is a measure of how comfortable and stable a person feels in a relationship. This "sense of security" is thought to be fundamental to strong relationships and a factor in marital satisfaction. In other studies, scientists have found that spouses who have high levels of attachment security are more positive about romantic love and have more positive relationship expectations. In this study the scientists expected that attachment security would buffer marital satisfaction and prevent it from declining or leading to divorce. The findings indicate that feeling secure is related to spouses' satisfaction and having a spouse who feels more satisfied. There was also evidence that couples with relationships in which people felt more secure had higher marital satisfaction. But even in these relationships marital satisfaction declined over time and there was no relationship between attachment and likelihood of divorce. In short, these couples were somewhat happier, but this factor alone did not prevent divorce.

These are puzzling findings. One overall conclusion is the concepts like "marital satisfaction" may be too complex to either report or to measure. Also, general feelings about satisfaction may not capture the complexity of feelings and experiences in a relationship. Couples may also maintain a rough feeling of satisfaction even when things are going badly as a means to cope with the difficulties. It is important to also note a significant limitation of the findings in this study. The sample studied was primarily Caucasian and upper middle class suggesting caution about applying these findings too generally to all couples.

Important questions for continued study. There is still much to learn about the interpersonal dynamics of relationships and the emotions connected to those relationships. Helping couples maintain good relationships and understanding how to create healthy, satisfying relationships is important to us all.