Why Do Happy Newlyweds Eventually Divorce?
In recent years, there have been several studies that suggest that some happy and satisfied newlyweds were still getting divorced. Paul Amato and Bryndl Hohmann-Marriott’s 2007 research is one such example; they found that there was a surprising number low-distress couples that were splitting up.
These findings led UCLA researchers Justin Lavner and Thomas Bradbury to speculate about the possible reasons for divorce among these seemingly happy couples. They suggested that there are four broad reasons for the findings: First, maybe the couples are just simply not as committed as other couples that stay together. Commitment has been shown to be an important factor as couples deal with difficulties and challenges in married life. Second, maybe one or both of the partners who seem satisfied with marriage have difficult personalities that, over time, lead to a decline in marital satisfaction. A third explanation could be that these satisfied couples encounter more stressful and challenging situations in life and that these difficulties lead to divorce. Finally, despite the aspects of marriage and life that are rewarding, perhaps there are subtle communication and conflict difficulties that progressively undermine the relationship over time.
To examine these possible explanations, Lavner and Bradury conducted a longitudinal study of 136 couples that provides some insight into the reasons why happy and satisfied newlyweds may eventually divorce. They selected a group of couples who, for the first four years of marriage, reported high satisfaction and general happiness with their marriages. These were not couples who were unhappy in these first few years. Lavner and Bradbury collected information about their levels of stress, their personalities and their commitment to the marriage. They also measured their communication skills in a laboratory activity that has been shown to reliably detect positive and negative strategies of communication and problem-solving. They then followed up these couples ten years later to see which ones were still married. By comparing those that were still married with those who got divorced, they were able to identify factors that distinguished the two groups.
They first compared whether or not the two groups were comprised of the same types of people. The results suggest that they were somewhat different groups. The group that divorced was younger, and the husbands had lower incomes. Also, the husbands in the divorced group were nearly twice as likely to have divorced parents than the husbands in the couples who stayed married. Wives’ incomes and history of parental divorce did not differ between the two groups. There were also no differences between the groups in terms of cohabitation and whether or not the couples had children. Yet, these findings suggest that the lives and experiences of individuals in these two groups of couples were somewhat different.
The next test was to determine if the couples who divorced were simply not as committed to the relationship. It is commonly believed that some couples just aren’t as willing to work hard on their relationship, but that was not the case in this sample. Both those who were still married and those who divorced had expressed similar commitment to the relationship in those early years of marriage.
In general, the two groups also did not differ in terms of the amount of stress that they experienced or in the personality traits of the husbands and wives.
The last hypothesis they tested was whether or not there were different communication styles between the couples. Although there were no differences in the degree of positive communication, there were notable differences in negative communication patterns. Couples who eventually divorced displayed more anger and contempt for their partners. When solving problems, they were more likely to disagree, and blame and invalidate the feelings of each other. In the laboratory, when asked to talk about an aspect of their lives that they would like to change, couples who divorced were more likely to express inappropriate pessimism, discourage the expression of feelings and insist that their partners resolve the situation on their own. Thus, it appears that the difference between these seeming satisfied young couples who divorce and those that don’t may be tied to negative communication and lack of support for each other that may eventually poison a satisfying relationship.
Lavner and Bradbury suggest that although there are positive aspects of these couples’ marriages, there are troublesome communication patterns that slowly grind away at the relationship. They write, “low-distress spouses may be able to avoid, “compartmentalize,” or rationalize the negative exchanges that do occur in the relationship.” It appears that in the long-run this strategy does not work.