Marital Quality

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Marital Quality

When people are asked to rate or rank their life goals, having a happy marriage is usually among the most important. People in most other modern societies seem to be somewhat less enamored of marriage than those in the United States, but with the possible exception of Scandinavians, who have often chosen nonmarital cohabitation over marriage, most adults throughout the modern world devote much effort to striving for a happy and satisfying marriage. Given the prominence and prevalence of this goal, family social scientists and psychologists could hardly avoid trying to assess the extent of its attainment and to identify the conditions under which it is likely to be attained. These efforts have been extensive, and the academic and clinical literature that deals with marital happiness and/or satisfaction is huge, with the number of relevant books, articles, and chapters published in the United States alone since the 1960s numbering in the thousands.

The terms marital happiness and marital satisfaction are closely related, but not synonymous (Campbell, Converse, and Rodgers 1976). Both refer to positive feelings that a spouse derives from a marriage, and both happiness and satisfaction are broader and more global in their meaning than such concepts as enjoyment, pleasure, and contentment. According to Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, and Willard Rodgers (1976), marital happiness is based on an affective evaluation, whereas marital satisfaction seems to have a more cognitive basis that involves a relation of one's circumstances to some standard. They found that marital happiness varied positively with formal education, while the most highly educated persons reported somewhat less marital satisfaction than those with less education. However, marital happiness and satisfaction are highly correlated and generally have been found to bear a similar relationship to other variables; thus, the common practice of using the two terms interchangeably in literature reviews is sloppy, but not a very serious error. This entry uses marital quality as a blanket term to cover either or both of these terms (see Lewis and Spanier 1979).

Marital quality is often used in a sense that includes marital adjustment as well as happiness and satisfaction. However, it is better to conceive of marital adjustment as something that may affect marital quality but is not part of it, since adjustment is an aspect of the relationship between spouses rather than a feeling experienced by each of them. Such indicators of adjustment as conflict, communication, and sharing of activities may relate differently to the spouses' feelings in different marriages, or even differently to the husband's and wife's feelings in the same marriage. The literature on marital adjustment is quite closely related to that on marital happiness and adjustment; the two literatures cannot be cleanly separated, since some marital quality scales (e.g., the widely used Dyadic Adjustment Scale) mix elements of adjustment with spouses' evaluations of their marriages (Spanier 1976). However, the focus in this entry is only on marital quality, as indicated by husbands' and wives' evaluations.

Measurement Issues

Marital happiness and satisfaction are often measured by single, straightforward questions that ask respondents to rate their marriages on a scale of happiness or satisfaction. There may be up to ten points on the scale, but often there are only three or four. It should be noted that individual satisfaction might be composed of different dimensions in different cultures. For example, a culture where arranged marriages and strong residential extended kinship is practiced might have satisfaction with in-laws as a significant dimension of marital quality and this dimension might not show up in cultures that practice voluntaristic mate selection and neolocal residence.

The prevailing view in family social science is that single-item indicators of marital quality are unsophisticated, and they are shunned by many researchers in favor of scales and multiple-item indices. Nevertheless, the best evidence on trends in and correlates of marital quality are based on responses to one, two, or three questions, since more complex measures have very rarely been used with large and representative samples. Furthermore, several critics have argued for the use of global measures of marital quality rather than multidimensional scales and indices that include variables that may influence or be influenced by spouses' evaluations of their marriages (e.g., Fincham and Bradbury 1987; Huston, McHale, and Crouter 1986; Huston and Robins 1982; Norton 1983). One may go beyond these critics and argue that one-item measures are sometimes superior to even two- and three-item scales and indices that might be multi-dimensional rather than unidimensional.

If a question has high face validity, as the straightforward questions about marital happiness and satisfaction do, then any other questions will have lower face validity and perforce must deal with something other than simply happiness or satisfaction. The purpose of multiple-item scales is to measure "latent" variables for which no direct measurement is possible and for which several indirect measures produce a higher degree of validity than a single one can. The usual assumption seems to be that there can be no simple, direct, and straightforward measure of feelings or other psychological characteristics, although single-item measures of date of birth, gender, and various demographic characteristics are routinely used. However, the correctness of this assumption is not self-evident, and the preference for multiple-item indicators for all psychological characteristics may grow primarily out of the researchers' need to feel sophisticated.

Nevertheless, most questions used to gauge marital happiness and satisfaction provide only crude measurement, if only because they offer only a few response alternatives, and the distribution of responses is usually highly skewed. For instance, the question about marital happiness most often used on national surveys in the United States offers only three degrees of happiness—"very happy," "pretty happy," and "not too happy"—and up to two-thirds of the respondents select the highest degree. Much of the variance in marital happiness must be among those who select the "very happy" alternative, but the measure is not finely calibrated enough to capture that variance. Furthermore, there is probably a systematic over-reporting of marital happiness and satisfaction, due not only to social desirability considerations—the most commonly discussed source of response bias—but also due to denial and a stoic tendency to put up a happy front. The extent of any such bias is unknown, and perhaps unknowable, but the likelihood that it is substantial is high enough to make it unwise to take reports of marital happiness and satisfaction at face value. Generally, only trends in the reports, and differences among categories of married persons, are worthy of interpretation. Of course, changes and differences in response bias may occasionally affect trend and comparative data.

Trends in Reported Marital Happiness

An essential part of the task of assessing the state of marriage in a modern society is to gauge change in the overall level of reported marital quality. Unfortunately, the data necessary for this task are quite limited for most societies, the United States being no exception. Until the early 1990s, about the only published evidence on this issue for the United States was from the Americans View Their Mental Health Surveys, conducted with national samples in 1957 and 1976. Joseph Veroff, Elizabeth Douvan, and Richard A. Kulka (1981) compared responses at the two dates to the question, "Taking things all together, how would you describe your marriage—would you say that your marriage was very happy, a little happier than average, just about average, or not too happy?" The "very happy" responses increased from 47 to 53 percent, and the combined "average" and "not too happy" responses declined from 32 to 20 percent—an indication of a moderate increase in marital happiness. The importance of not combining evaluations of specific aspects of marriages with global evaluations is illustrated by the fact that the percent of respondents who said "nothing" in response to a question about "not so nice things" about their marriage declined from 31 to 23, and the percent who reported problems with their marriage rose from 46 to 61. There apparently were specific aspects of marriages not covered by the questions that tended to improve from 1957 to 1976.

The most common reason given for the 1957-1976 increase in average marital happiness is that the steep increase in divorce beginning in 1965 improved the speed and effectiveness of the removal of persons in poor marriages from the married population. Since the divorce rate continued to rise after 1976 before leveling off at a very high level in the 1980s, there are reasons to suspect that the increase in marital happiness continued after 1976—a suspicion often voiced by commentators on marriage in the United States.

The best relevant data, however, indicate otherwise. The General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center have asked a simple marital happiness question of its married respondents annually since 1973, except in 1979, 1981, and 1992 (Davis and Smith, 1993). The question is worded, "Taking things all together, would you say that your marriage is very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" Fewer than 5 percent of the respondents have typically chosen the "not too happy" alternative, so the data are often collapsed into "very happy" versus less favorable responses. The 1973-1993 trend is shown in Figure 1, the linear trend line being distinctly downward, though only at the rate of .32 points per year.

The important thing about these findings is not that reported marital happiness declined moderately, but that it did not increase substantially, as it should have done if the main reason for the increase in divorce in recent decades was, as the sanguine view of U.S. marriage would have it, an increased reluctance of persons to endure poor marriages. Assuming the validity of the reports of marital happiness, the sanguine view is clearly indefensible; the increase in divorce must have resulted to a large extent from an increased tendency for marriages to go bad. This point is illustrated by the other two linear trend lines in Figure 1. The decline in the percent of persons in very happy marriages was steeper for all ever-married, nonwidowed persons (.60 points per year) and for all persons age thirty or older (.73 points per year) than for those currently married. Data on the trend in percent of ever-married, nonwidowed persons in marriages in which they reported to be "very happy" at various lengths of time after the first marriage indicate that a decreasing proportion of the persons in the United States who marry at least once are finding the marital happiness they seek (Glenn 1991, 1993). In addition, the increase in divorce has not even decreased the proportion of persons who say they are in less than happy marriages at various lengths of time after the first marriage.

One might speculate that the apparent decline in the prospects of achieving a good marriage is illusory and has resulted from an increased tendency of persons in unsatisfactory marriages to report the quality of their marriages honestly. There is no definitive evidence that this explanation is not correct, but if the validity of reports of marital happiness had increased, the relationship of reported marital happiness to variables likely to be affected by marital happiness should have increased; that did not happen. For instance, the relationship of reported marital happiness to reported global (personal) happiness remained virtually stable from 1973 to 1993.

Why has the probability of attaining happy and satisfying marriages in the United States declined? Since few commentators have recognized such a change or conceded that it has probably occurred, little has been written on the topic. Norval D. Glenn (1991) has speculated that a decline in the ideal of marital permanence has made persons less willing and less able to make the commitments, sacrifices, and "investments" of energy, time, and lost opportunities that are necessary to make marriages succeed. The breakdown in consensus about marital roles, whereby the terms of the marriage must be negotiated by each married couple and often must be renegotiated during the course of the marriage, has almost certainly contributed to the change, as have increased expectations of marriage. Disagreement over the division of household responsibilities has also emerged as a major cause of trouble in U.S. marriages (Berk 1985; Booth et al. 1984).

Bases of Marital Quality

Marriage counselors, ministers, various custodians of the folklore, and perhaps even family social scientists and psychologists may possess a great deal of wisdom about how to achieve and maintain happy and satisfying marriages. Many people probably know a great deal about how to achieve a happy marriage, but that knowledge is based hardly at all on systematic research. In spite of the enormous amount of research devoted to the topic, truly scientific evidence on the bases of marital happiness and satisfaction is meager. One reason may be that marital quality is inherently hard to study, but a more certain reason is that most of the research has been seriously deficient.

Consider, for instance, the many cross-sectional studies of samples of married persons in which various demographic and social variables have been related to the respondents' reports of their marital happiness or satisfaction. These studies have amassed a large body of evidence on the correlates of the measures of marital quality and have often inferred cause and effect from the correlational data. Even though some of the studies have used apparently sophisticated causal modeling, virtually none of the research has met the requirements for valid causal inference. An inherent limitation of studies concentrating on currently married persons, especially in a society with very high divorce rates, is that many of the persons among whom negative influences on marital quality have been the strongest have been selected out of the sampled population through divorce. Therefore, the effects of the negative influences will be underestimated or not detected at all in analyses of data on married persons, or positive effects may even be attributed to the influences.

There are two aspects of the problem. First, divorce lessens the variance of marital quality, thus attenuating estimates of effects on that variable. Second, if variables that affect marital quality affect the probability of divorce in ways other than via marital quality, the estimates of the effects can be substantially biased in either direction. A hypothetical case will illustrate the point. Suppose that celebrity status typically has negative effects on marital quality and that it increases the probability of divorce (by providing numerous alternatives to the current marriage) at each level of marital quality. If the latter effect is very strong and the former is relatively weak, a causal analysis with cross-sectional data that does not take the selection factor into account will estimate the effect of celebrity status on marital quality to be positive. Suppose that adherence to a particular religious ideology typically exerts positive influence on marital quality but decreases the probability of divorce at each level of marital quality. In this case, the straightforward testing of a simple causal model may indicate a negative effect of religious adherence on marital quality, or at least it will yield an attenuated estimated positive effect.

It is theoretically possible, of course, to incorporate selection processes into causal models to obtain unbiased estimates of effects (Berk 1983; Heckman 1979), but the methods developed to do this have been criticized as inadequate, and in any event, they require information the researcher rarely has. Given the limitations of corrections for "sample selection bias," it is hardly lamentable that they have rarely been used in studies of the bases of marital quality.

A more promising solution to the problems posed by the use of cross-sectional data from samples of married individuals to infer effects on marital quality is to use longitudinal data or cross-sectional data from samples including formerly married as well as currently married individuals. Except in those rare studies in which marital quality has been assessed at frequent intervals before divorces have occurred, such research requires the assumption that marital quality becomes low before divorce occurs, but that assumption seems generally justified. Overall, longitudinal data are, of course, better for the purpose at hand, but cross-sectional data can be used to assess the effects of background variables that can be measured with reasonable accuracy through retrospective reports. Unfortunately, research with these designs has been rare, and such research with data from large and representative national samples is only in its infancy. As it increases, a substantial increment in credible evidence on the effects of several demographic and social variables on marital quality can be expected.

In the meantime, the evidence on the bases of marital happiness and marital satisfaction from "mainstream" quantitative social science consists almost entirely of a body of weak correlations and estimates of weak effects. The lack of strong relationships no doubt results in large measure from some of the most important influences on marital quality not being amenable to measurement on large-scale surveys and thus not being taken into account. Individuals' feelings about their marriages are also subject to considerable short-term fluctuation, and the variance resulting from this fluctuation will not be explained by the major long-term influences on marital quality. There is also the attenuation of measured relationships resulting from the selection of many of the people with the least satisfactory marriages out of the population of married persons.

These limitations of the evidence do not mean that it is worthless, but only that it should be interpreted with caution. Most of the estimates of effects are probably in the right direction, and theory, common sense, and what is known about the phenomena studied from sources other than the data at hand (side information) can provide strong clues about when to suspect that the estimated direction is wrong. When theory and common sense suggest that the direction of the estimated effects is right, it should often be suspected that the real world effects are stronger than the estimated ones. Since correlational data not used to test explicitly specified causal models can suggest effects on marital quality, it is useful to discuss briefly some of the frequently found correlates.

One of the most frequent findings concerning marital quality is that it bears a nonmonotonic relationship to family life stage, being high in the preparental stage, lower in the parental stages, and relatively high in the "empty nest" or postparental stage. Although every few years someone publishes an article challenging the existence of this nonmonotonic relationship, its cross-sectional existence is hardly in doubt; it has been found by numerous studies conducted over more than twenty years, and the data from large national samples reported in Table 1 clearly show it. The reasons for and meaning of this cross-sectional relationship are not clear, however, and it is much less than certain that marriages that survive through all of the stages typically follow the down-up pattern suggested by the cross-sectional data (Vaillant and Vaillant 1993).

Most of the data on family life stage and marital quality confound any effects of presence-absence of children with those of duration of marriage. However, research has shown that each of these variables bears a relationship to measures of marital quality when the other is held constant (e.g., Glenn 1989; McLanahan and Adams 1989; White and Booth 1985; White, Booth, and Edwards 1986). That average marital quality drops during the first few years of marriage is hardly in doubt, especially in view of the fact that a high divorce rate during those years eliminates many of the worst marriages and prevents many marital failures from being reflected in the cross-sectional data. That reported marital quality is typically lower after the birth of the first child than earlier is also not in doubt, but in spite of numerous studies of the transition to parenthood (e.g., Belsky, Spanier, and Rovine 1983; Feldman and Nash 1984; Goldberg, Michaels, and Lamb 1985; McHale and Huston 1985), it still is not certain that the addition of a child to the family typically brings about any permanent reduction in marital quality. At least one study has found evidence that the cross-sectional association of the presence of a child or children with low marital quality results to a large extent, though not totally, from the fact that children tend to prevent or delay divorce and keep unhappily married couples together, at least temporarily (White, Booth, and Edwards 1986). The apparent upturn in marital quality in the postparental stage

table 1
Characteristics of married persons who reported very happy marriages
characteristichusbands (%)(n)wives (%)(n)
* hodge-siegel-rossi scores: low = 9-39; medium = 40-59; high = 60-82
† persons in first marriages only
SOURCE: the 1973–1991 general social survey cumulative file (davis and smith 1993). data are weighted on number of persons age 18 or older in the household.
hours per week wife worked outside home
30 or more66.2(2,580)63.1(2,836)
african american54.5(595)48.3(654)
less than high school66.4(2,194)56.7(2,135)
high school67.9(3,503)64.8(4,761)
junior college61.4(233)62.4(272)
bachelor's degree68.4(938)71.6(844)
graduate degree69.1(548)67.6(275)
husband's cccupational prestige*
age at first marriage†
years since first marriage†
40 or more74.0(1,074)64.0(1,046)
family life stage
spend a social evening with relatives
never or infrequently59.9(484)51.8(463)
several times a year62.0(876)61.8(880)
about once a month64.5(828)62.8(785)
once or twice a week/several times a month69.3(2,139)65.2(2,534)
almost daily72.6(246)66.3(334)
religious preference
identification with a religion or denomination
somewhat strong65.3(702)62.5(755)
not very strong64.0(3,114)57.5(2,946)
attendance of religious services
several times a year67.5(1,006)61.1(1,067)
one to three times a month67.8(1,117)59.2(1,343)
weekly or almost weekly73.0(1,968)68.0(2,746)
several times a week77.6(532)71.2(836)

is probably real, though small, but the existence of positive duration-of-marriage effects beyond the middle years is not at all certain, since the cross-sectional data confound any effects of marital duration with those of cohort membership and the divorces of unhappily married persons.

Some of the other data in Table 1 suggest influences stronger than those of family stage or duration of marriage. Since reported marital happiness varies directly with frequency of attendance of religious services and strength of identification with a religious group or denomination and is higher for persons who report a religious preference than for those who say they have no religion, religiosity is probably a rather strong positive influence on marital quality, especially since indicators of religiosity are also associated with low divorce rates (Glenn and Supancic 1984). However, more than religiosity may be involved in the relationship between frequency of attendance of religious services and marital quality. Such attendance is an indicator of social participation and social integration as well as religiosity, and there are many suggestions in literature that social integration is conducive to marital success. The data in Table 1 indicating that frequency of association with extended family members is positively related to marital happiness are also consistent with the social integration explanation of marital happiness.

The literature on African-American-white differences in the probability of marital success is extensive, yet there is no definitive evidence as to why reported marital quality is higher among whites (see Table 1) and divorce rates are lower. The measures of socioeconomic status usually included on social surveys do not account for much of the difference and in fact do not relate strongly to either reported marital quality or the probability of divorce (Glenn and Supancic 1984). Of course, this does not mean that past differences in economic conditions or differences in economic security are not important reasons for the racial difference in the probability of marital success, but their influence may be largely through such variables as the lower sex ratio among African Americans (Guttentag and Secord 1983).

The lack of even a moderately strong relationship between reported marital happiness and two of the independent variables included in Table 1 illustrates the danger of concluding that there is no effect on marital quality on the basis of cross-sectional data. The indicated differences in marital happiness by age at first marriage (shown only for persons in their first marriages) are quite small, which might lead to the conclusion that early marriages are almost as successful on average as marriages of more mature persons. However, the divorce rate does vary substantially by age at marriage—an indication that early marriages are unusually likely to have failed, either by ending in divorce or being less than satisfactory (Bumpass and Sweet 1972; Schoen 1975). It appears that persons who find themselves in less than satisfactory marriages within a few years after marriage are more likely to divorce if they were married early, and this results in a very small difference in marital quality between early and late marriers in intact first marriages.

The data in Table 1 show virtually no relationship between the number of hours the wife worked outside the home and the reported marital happiness of either the wife or the husband. There is no definitive evidence that the wife's working outside the home does affect marital quality, but these cross-sectional data do not prove that it does not. Suppose that at each level of marital quality, the probability of divorce varies directly with the number of hours the wife works outside the home—not an unlikely relationship. If so, poor marriages will be more quickly ended among couples in which the wife works more hours outside the home, thus raising the average marital quality in the remaining marriages in that category. If so, marital quality should vary positively with number of hours worked by the wife unless wives' working outside the home has a negative effect on marital success.

Dozens of other variables have been related to measures of marital happiness and satisfaction, but the ones discussed here are among those to which the greatest attention has been devoted. The deficiencies in the evidence of the causal importance of these variables is illustrative of the weakness of the body of "scientific" study concerning the bases of marital quality.

Consequences of Marital Quality

In contrast to the literature on the bases of marital quality, that on its consequences is quite sparse. About the only variables likely to be affected by marital quality to which strong relationships have been shown to exist are global happiness and life satisfaction (Andrews and Withey 1976; Campbell, Converse, and Rodgers 1976; Glenn and Weaver 1981). Data from the 1982-1991 General Social Surveys show that the percent of married persons who said they were personally very happy varied from 57.2, for those who said they had "very happy" marriages, to 11.2 and 2.6, respectively, for those reporting "pretty happy" and "not too happy" marriages. Although this relationship may be partially spurious, it is likely to be largely causal, since theory and common sense predict strong effects of marital quality on life quality. If so, the data indicate that having a good marriage is virtually necessary, though not sufficient, for global happiness.

Research on the effects of marital quality is likely to increase along at least two different lines. There is already a great deal of evidence on the probable effects of marital status on physical and mental health (Umberson 1987; Verbrugge 1979), and researchers are beginning to perceive the need to do equally extensive and sophisticated research on the health effects of marital quality. Simply stated, the main question is: How bad does a marriage have to be before it is worse than no marriage at all? There is also much discussion, especially in the journalistic and policy literature, about the effects of marital quality on children, as conservatives and communitarians have challenged the orthodox liberal belief that it is better for the children if the parents divorce when a marriage goes bad. Virtually everyone agrees that a violent or extremely hostile marriage is bad for children, but how bad does a marriage have to be for the children to benefit from the parents' separation? Excluding the most hostile and conflict-ridden marriages, is there any close relationship between the quality of the parents' marriage and the children's well-being? So far, well-conducted research has provided hints, but no compelling evidence. We must also await comparative cross-cultural data to assist us in establishing the uniformity for both the causes and consequence of marital quality as they are currently viewed by North American academics.

See also:Affection; Attachment:Couple Divorce: Effect on Couples; Dual-Earner Families; Family Roles; Family Strengths; Motherhood; Power: Marital Relationships; Relationship Maintenance; Religion; Therapy: Couple Relationships; Transition to Parenthood; Widowhood; Work and Family


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