Psychologists have studied couples for years in order to find out what makes for a lasting relationship. However, predicting what is going to work “before” the marriage is more difficult. Ted Huston, Ph.D. found that marriages fall into four distinct groups: Married and happy; married and unhappy; divorced early, within seven years, or divorced later, after seven years. Ultimately, the distinguishing factor between those who divorced and those who remained married was noted in the amount of change in the fist two years of the marriage.
These people were as happy and “in love” as newlyweds. They had less mixed feelings, and expressed negative feelings less often than others. They viewed their mates more positively than other couples. Most importantly, these feelings remained stable over time.
These couples were less affectionate toward each other. They became less loving, more negative, and more critical of their spouse. The loss of the initial levels of love and affection, rather than conflict, was the most important predictor of distress and divorce. This loss sets the downward spiral which leads to increasing bickering and fighting.
What Does This Mean?
The loss of intimacy early on in the relationship is the most critical factor. When people are first close, they feel much validation from each other. It feels like their partner is the only one who sees things the way they do. When this feeling fades, it takes a heavy and fatal toll on the marriage. This then becomes the “disillusionment stage.”
Lovers initially put their best foot forward, ignoring shortcomings of the other and the relationship. However, after the marriage, “hidden” personality traits come out and the idealized images give way to reality. When this happens there is much disappointment, loss of love, distress and divorce. This is especially important for couples who “stop” doing much to “work on the relationship” after they “have it,” expecting that things will just move along fine without any work on their part, which is a big mistake.
Most importantly, the research showed that marriages that started out “less Hollywood Romance types” usually had a more promising future. This is because when we “expect perfect romance” we are frequently disappointed because reality sets in. In whirlwind ( and short) romances, it is easy to be unrealistic and paint rosy pictures of the relationship that cannot be sustained. Another danger sign for a relationship is a courtship filled with drama, crises and driven by external circumstances and stressors.
First, be aware that divorce is associated with increased feelings of disillusionment, regardless of the cause.
Happy marriages are characterized by the “enduring dynamics model.” In this model, the partners establish patterns of behaviors early and maintain them over time. They focus on things that help to stabilize the relationship. They have “lower levels of expectations” across the board. In other words, their discontent does not “spill over” into other areas of their marriage.
The happy couples understand that the euphoria of the honeymoon will not last and that there is a natural transition from the “romantic” to the “working partnership. When conflict does arise, they defuse it in positive and constructive ways. They were good friends, enjoyed doing things with each other, and found ways to share time in activities that helped the “relationship grow.” They also enjoy talking to each other.
The indicators of a bad marriage are usually present before the wedding if only people will pay attention to the “patterns” instead of ignoring them. If one feels that they have to “force it” then something is not right.
Our culture puts forth the “story book romances filled with passion.” This is unrealistic and puts couples under such pressure that they become unhappy at trying to maintain this unrealistic, unsustainable “Hollywood” passion. No one can control the other one. All we can do is be realistic, and learn how to deal with real daily problems, because they will come!