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Marital Typologies

Marital Typologies

Part of the process of science is description. As an aid in this description process, some scholars have classified marriages into different typologies. Typologies, used in all fields of science, are artificial categories developed to demonstrate the similarities that exist within a group and highlight the differences between groups. Typologies enable marriage scholars to develop a shared language and are useful in describing the similarities and differences between marriages. For example, Walter F. Willcox (1892) identified two types of marriage: despotic and democratic. The despotic type of marriage, based on Roman law, viewed the wife as the property of the husband and, therefore, subject to him in all matters. The democratic type of marriage arose under the Teutones. They honored women and viewed the husband and wife as equals who made decisions on a democratic basis. This typology was developed as a simple way of bringing order to the study of marriage relationships.

Scholars have since developed numerous marriage typologies. In the 1940s, sociologists noted two types of marriage: institutional and companionate (Burgess and Locke 1948). The traditional institutional marriage emphasized the separate roles that husbands and wives played within the family. Husbands were the primary wage earners, decision makers, and the link between the family and the larger society. Wives were usually responsible for childrearing and homemaking and were subordinate to the desires of their husbands. However, a trend was noted toward companionate marriages, which emphasized shared, rather than separate, roles and decision-making responsibilities. In companionate marriages, wives often earned an income and husbands assisted with care of the children. The specific roles and responsibilities carried out within the companionate marriage were not based on a person's gender, but on a mutual agreement between equals.

Later, scholars criticized the institutional/companionate typology because it was inadequate for describing many of the contemporary differences that existed within marriage relationships. Therefore, John F. Cuber and Peggy B. Harroff (1965), studying enduring marriages, developed one of the best-known marital typologies. They proposed three institutional (conflict habituated,devitalized, passive-congenial) and two companionate (vital, total) types of marriage.

Elements of a Good Typology of Marriage

A good typology should include five important characteristics. The typology must be: exhaustive; mutually exclusive; a reliable means of assigning couples to a type; developed through a systematic process; and able to economize thought.

Exhaustive means that all of the important dimensions of a marriage relationship are included when couples are assigned to a marital type. If communication is an important component of a marriage, then "communication" must be one of the criteria used to assign couples to a marriage type. However, if the typology is to be exhaustive, it must include other important dimensions of marriage relationships, not merely communication.

Mutually exclusive means that a couple should be assigned to only one type of marriage. Thus, a couple should be classified as either a vital or a total marriage, not a mixed type including characteristics common to both vital and total marriages. A reliable method of assigning couples means there must be no uncertainty in the typology assignment. A good typology will clearly outline why the marriage is assigned a specific type.

The typology should be developed through a systematic process rather than merely by intuition or logic. Some typologies have been developed in a fairly informal fashion when scholars, based on their own understanding of marriage, developed what they thought were the most important and logical characteristics to describe all marriages. For example, some scholars assumed that marital stability (how likely the couple is to stay married) and marital satisfaction (the degree of happiness within the marriage) were the best two dimensions to describe all marriages (Levinger 1965; Lewis and Spanier 1979). The logic of these scholars was therefore used to develop a typology that described all marriages. On the other hand, some scholars use sophisticated scientific procedures to observe marriages and, as a result of their observations, develop a typology. For instance, John M. Gottman (1999, 1994) and his colleagues observed marital partners as they discussed real relationship problems, and then developed five marital types based on their observations. Therefore, Gottman's marital types are derived from systematic observations rather than logic and beliefs about marriage.

Finally, a good typology should be able to economize thought. It should concisely describe a great deal of information about a marriage. The typology should group together into one type all marriages sharing similar characteristics and separate into different types those marriages that differ from one another.

The Proliferation of Marriage-Related Typologies

Many of the recent studies of marriage typologies have focused on a limited collection of marital behaviors rather than focusing on a more exhaustive list of characteristics of all marriages. For example a range of typologies have been developed examining: extramarital affairs in Taiwan (Chang 1999); divorcing couples (Cohen, Finzi, and Avi-Yonah 1999); dual earner couples (Crouter and Manke 1997; Rosenfeld, Bowen, and Richman 1995); marriages lasting 50 years or more (Dickson 1995); and alcohol consumption habits of marriage partners (Roberts and Leonard 1998). Though this proliferation of unique typologies helps scholars understand certain marriages, they cannot be used to classify all marriage relationships. For example, in many marriages neither individual consumes alcohol, and in other marriages neither partner engages in an extramarital affair. Because some typologies focus on an incomplete set of marital characteristics and behaviors they have limited utility in describing all marriages. This entry will primarily address typologies that tend to be more inclusive rather than those typologies limited to a small subset of marriages.

Using Logical Methods to Create Typologies

Some scholars develop a typology based on the logical characteristics or pre-existing categories they believe describe most marriage relationships. The basis for the marital typology is therefore the scientist's own logic and reason. Some of the marriage typologies that have been developed have used this informal logical process.

George Levinger (1965) believed that marital stability and satisfaction were two of the most significant dimensions to consider when developing marital types; marriages could be either high or low on stability and marital satisfaction. He used these two dimensions of marriage to describe four different marital types. Full-shell marriages had high levels of satisfaction and stability; these couples rarely if ever considered divorce and were very happy with the relationship. No-shell marriages had low levels of stability and satisfaction; these couples were having difficulty staying together and were not happy with the relationship. Empty-shell marriages were low on satisfaction, yet there were high levels of stability; although these couples were not happy with their relationships, there was no consideration of divorce. Half-shell marriages had high levels of satisfaction, yet the couples were likely to terminate the marriage.

Researchers studying marriage in other cultures have used this logical process to examine specific aspects of marriage that are unique to a culture. For example, in some cultures parents and family members initiate "arranged" marriages. Thus parents select marriage partners for their children. In contrast, in most western cultures, the selection of a spouse is based on the individual's own choice and feelings of love for the partner. Arranged versus love marriages can therefore be viewed as two different marital categories. Noran Hortacsu (1999) studied 130 Turkish couples comparing couple initiated (love marriages) and family initiated (arranged) marriages. Although this study is useful in understanding some of the differences between love versus arranged marriages, this classification focuses only on one element of a marriage, the selection process.

Using Scientific Methods to Create Typologies

In more recent years, an effort has been made to classify marriages into one type or another based on systematic scientific observations of marriages. Probably the most comprehensive marriage typology was developed using a computer-scored questionnaire (Olson and Fowers 1993). David H. Olson and his colleagues used a questionnaire called ENRICH to evaluate marriage relationships along nine dimensions: personality issues, communication, conflict resolution, financial management, leisure activities, sexual relationship, children and parenting, family and friends, and religious orientation. This typology meets the "exhaustive" criteria because it examines nine areas of the relationship before determining the marital type. The couples' responses were also used to help specify which aspect of their relationship might be a strength and which aspect of their relationship might be an area for growth. This study yielded five different types of marriages: devitalized, conflicted, traditional, harmonious, and vitalized.

The first and most common type was labeled a devitalized marriage. The devitalized marriage was primarily characterized as dissatisfaction with all nine dimensions of the relationship. These couples were overall more likely to be dissatisfied with their relationship and likely to have considered divorce. The second type was labeled a conflicted marriage. Partners in these marriages were dissatisfied with communication, conflict resolution, their partner's personality, and their sex lives. However, they were satisfied with their children, religious lives, and the use of leisure time within their marriages. Dissatisfaction stemmed most often from things within the relationship, and satisfaction was obtained from things outside the relationship. The third type of union was characterized as a traditional marriage. Traditional couples were dissatisfied with communication, conflict resolution, and sex, yet they were satisfied with family and friends, religion, and leisure time. They were one of the most satisfied of all types in how they handled their children and parenting duties. Partners in the fourth type, harmonious marriages, were self-focused and tended to be unions in which the couple was highly satisfied with their sex lives, leisure time, and finances. Dissatisfaction within harmonious marriages arose for the most part from interaction with their children and family, and their friendships with others. The last type, vitalized marriages, demonstrated the highest levels of satisfaction across all nine dimensions.

To examine the usefulness of this typology with different ethnic groups, William Allen (1997) sampled a group of 450 African-American couples who completed the ENRICH questionnaire. The study results yielded the same five couple types, with similar percentages of couples in each type. This lends credibility to the notion that Olson's typology is useful in describing more than merely Caucasian marriages.

One strength of this typology is that nine different marital dimensions are evaluated before a couple is assigned to a type. An additional strength is the ENRICH questionnaire. This assessment, used by thousands of couples since 1986, is accepted as a valid and reliable way to examine marital and premarital relationships. This typology can also be useful to clergy and marital counselors who are helping couples improve their marriages, because it highlights specific areas of the relationship that need work. It gives a clear understanding of both the strong and weak areas of a relationship. Finally, this typology demonstrates clearly that couples can be satisfied with some dimensions of their marriage, yet dissatisfied with other aspects.

It is evident by this brief discussion that the study of marriage has generated many different typologies that all attempt to describe marriage. Only one typology, however, has been practically useful in not only describing marriage but predicting marital stability, whether a couple will divorce or whether they will stay together (Gottman 1994).

Gottman and his colleagues observed couples in conflictual conversations, and from these observations divided couples into five different types (Gottman 1999; Gottman and Levenson 1992). Three of these marriage types (validating, volatile, and avoidant) were stable and, thus, not likely to divorce. The other two types (hostile-engaged and hostile-detached) were unstable and on the path toward divorce.

Validating couples avoided conflict unless there was a very serious issue in the marriage. When conflict did arise, there were high levels of validation. Validation was defined as minimal vocal responses from the listener such as "mmmmhmmm" or "yeah" that provided feedback that the speaker should continue, and demonstrated the partner was listening and wanted to understand the point of view of the speaker. Volatile couples valued their individuality more than the marriage, and allowed each partner more time for privacy. They thrived on conflict and were free to express their disagreements. Husbands and wives expressed high levels of both positive and negative feelings within their conflict. Avoidant couples minimized marital conflict. They were distant from each other, with low levels of sharing and companionship. They valued their own separate space and desired high levels of independence. In all three of the stable types of marriages, partners had both positive and negative interactions with each other. However, the stable couples had much higher levels of positive than negative interaction.

Hostile-engaged couples experienced high levels of overt conflict. One partner complained and criticized, and the other responded defensively. Neither seemed to understand the point of view of the partner. Hostile-detached couples engaged in a type of guerrilla warfare. Although they typically led very emotionally separate and independent lives, they got into brief encounters of attack and defend. When not attacking, the listener would nonverbally communicate disinterest, coldness, and disapproval of the conflict. Disinterest was referred to as stonewalling, typically a male behavior showing a lack of interest in the message of the speaker.

The unstable couples resolved their conflicts in primarily negative ways. They rated their conflicts as more serious and felt more negative during their conflicts than the stable couples. Unstable couples were less satisfied with their marriages, more likely to have been thinking about divorce, and more likely to have already separated than were the stable couples.

Gottman's typology demonstrated that all stable marriages were not alike. Similarly, there were also considerable differences among unstable marriages. Neither intense conflict nor conflict avoidance were necessarily problematic marital patterns. For a marriage to be stable, negative communication needed to be offset by about five times as much positive communication. Still, a high level of negative interaction did not in itself lead to divorce unless there was little positive in the relationship. Even withdrawal and expressions of criticism and defensiveness did not lead to divorce if they were combined with high levels of positive interaction.

If the process of classifying marriages is to be useful, it must be able to describe marriages across cultures. In reality, few empirically derived typologies have attempted to test these classification systems across cultures. However, Guy Bodenmann, John Gottman, and John Backman (1997) explored the applicability of Gottman's typology with a sample of Swiss marriages. Although marriage relationships in the two cultures differed, with the divorce rate in Switzerland about half of that in the United States, the typology was useful in classifying the same five couple types. This study provided initial support that Gottman's typology of marriage was useful in classifying couples beyond North America.

Problems with Marital Typologies

Typologies are useful because they group similar types of marriages into one category. This process brings order to the study of marriage and provides a language that describes the similarities and differences among marriages. Though current typologies are useful, no marital classification system clearly meets all of the characteristics of a good typology.

Although marital scholars have made strides in creating and refining typologies, the scientific community has not come to a consensus on any one typology. In order for the typological study of marriage to progress there must be agreement on the behaviors and characteristics the typology should describe and the system needs to be adopted by a significant number of marital scholars. In contrast, classification systems have been more widely accepted in the natural sciences. For example, within the biological sciences there is agreement on a classification system that is widely adopted by biologists. Thus, each species can be classified by certain characteristics common to the kingdom, phylum, genus, and species. This classification system and common language is agreed upon within the biological community and is useful in the communication process. Similarly, those who study marriage relationships must develop a classification system that includes the important behaviors and characteristics of most marriages. If marital scholars could develop and agree upon such a typology, it would create a useful language that scholars could use in their study and treatment of marriage relationships.

The current marital typologies often fail to promote the clarity that a classification system should provide. For example, validating marriages share a group of common characteristics yet still differ along many dimensions, thus validating marriages are not all the same. When researchers assign a marriage within a typology, they often lose sight of the uniqueness of the marriages among that type. This being the case, some scholars believe that typologies actually blur reality rather than describe it more clearly (Hall and Lindzey 1985). Although a typology does help to describe marriage in an understandable way, it may simplify the complexity of marriage too much.

The difficulty of capturing several dimensions of a marriage creates difficult measurement challenges. To date, the two most widely used typologies are those developed by Gottman and Olson. Gottman has combined multiple methods to assign couples to a type including self-report surveys, laboratory observations, physiological measurements, and couple interviews. However, his focus has been on one main dimension of marriage: how couples handle conflict. Gottman's typology could be strengthened if it examined a greater number of marital characteristics rather than only conflict. In contrast, Olson has surveyed large numbers of couples along the nine dimensions of marriage, but his only method to assign couples to a type has been self-report surveys. Olson's typology could be strengthened if he would use more than one method in the assignment of couples to the type. Focusing on core dimensions of the marriage relationship using multiple methods of measurement strengthens the typology because it recognizes the complexity in the assignment process.

An additional problem arises when the spouses disagree on which typology best describes their marriage. For example, Douglas Snyder and Gregory Smith (1986) found that almost 50 percent of couples disagreed about which typology most accurately described their marriage. This may be evidence of the fact that there are really two perspectives of the same marriage—his marriage, as the husband sees it, and her marriage, as the wife sees it. A good typology should place the couple into one category only.

Typologies also present only a still-life snapshot of marriage, when in reality marriages change over time and across situations. A relationship that is categorized as vital at one point in time may be characterized as conflict-habituated later on because of changes that have taken place. In fact, marriages are typically dynamic and can change considerably over time. Research done on the first year of marriage indicates that partners' feelings of love for each other (as well as their hugging, kissing, and affection) decrease, while conflict increases (Huston, McHale, and Crouter 1986). Marriages also change when new members are added to the family as a result of a birth, or when a spouse retires. Therefore, although a typology is useful to describe a marriage at a given point in time, it is not helpful for describing how marriages change over time.

Last, and potentially the most challenging issue facing those who study marriage, is the feasibility of a typology that is useful across cultures. Can a single typology adequately capture the differences that exist in marital relationships across cultures? Studies must continue to examine the usefulness of existing typologies in describing marriages beyond the boundaries of North America.


Though there are limitations to the existing marital typologies, the current systems are more useful in describing marriage relationships than no system at all. The ongoing challenge is to refine a classification system and encourage scholars to adopt the typology. Though these challenges may seem daunting, it is important to realize that marital scholarship is yet in its infancy. As the field refines its methods, develops more continuity, and wrestles with the challenges of developing a good typology, the ability to classify marriages in useful and a commonly accepted manner will emerge.

See also:Attachment: Couple Relationships; Conflict: Couple Relationships; Equity; Family Roles; Intimacy; Marital Quality; Power: Marital Relationships; Marital Sex; Therapy: Couple Relationships


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