Marital Adjustment

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Marital adjustment has long been a popular topic in studies of the family, probably because the concept is believed to be closely related to the stability of a given marriage. Well-adjusted marriages are expected to last for a long time, while poorly adjusted ones end in divorce. Simple as it seems, the notion of marital adjustment is difficult to conceptualize and difficult to measure through empirical research. After more than half a century of conceptualization about and research on marital adjustment, the best that can be said may be that there is disagreement among scholars about the concept, the term, and its value. In fact, several scientists have proposed abandoning entirely the concept of marital adjustment and its etymological relatives (Lively 1969; Donohue and Ryder 1982; Trost 1985).


Scientists have long been interested in understanding which factors contribute to success in marriage and which to failure. As early as the 1920s, Gilbert Hamilton (1929) conducted research on marital satisfaction by using thirteen clusters of questions. In 1939, Ernest Burgess and Leonard Cottrell published Predicting Success or Failure in Marriage, in which they systematically discussed marital adjustment. They defined adjustment as "the integration of the couple in a union in which the two personalities are not merely merged, or submerged, but interact to complement each other for mutual satisfaction and the achievement of common objectives" (p. 10).

Researchers have not agreed upon the use of any one term. To describe the seemingly same phenomenon, some have used the terms "marital quality," "marital satisfaction," and "marital happiness." Robert Lewis and Graham Spanier have defined marital quality as "a subjective evaluation of a married couple's relationship" (1979, p. 269)—a concept similar to that of "marital adjustment." There have been numerous definitions of "marital adjustment" and "marital quality" (Spanier and Cole 1976), and it may not be fruitful to attempt to define the concept in a sentence or two. Rather, the following description of the factors that constitute marital adjustment or quality may prove more meaningful.

Since Burgess and Cottrell's formulation, scientists have examined extensively the factors constituting marital adjustment. Although there has been no consensus among researchers, factors constituting marital adjustment include agreement, cohesion, satisfaction, affection, and tension. Agreement between spouses on important matters is critical to a well-adjusted marriage. Though minor differences may broaden their perspectives, major differences between the spouses in matters such as philosophy of life, political orientations, and attitudes toward gender roles are detrimental to marital adjustment. In addition, agreement on specific decisions about family matters must be reached in good accord. Marital cohesion refers to both spouses' commitment to the marriage and the companionship experienced in it. In a well adjusted marriage, both spouses try to make sure that their marriage will be successful. They also share common interests and joint activities. In a well-adjusted marriage, both spouses must be satisfied and happy with the marriage. Unhappy but long-lasting marriages are not well-adjusted ones. Spouses in well-adjusted marriages share affection, and it is demonstrated as affectionate behavior. Finally, the degree of tension in a well-adjusted marriage is minimal, and when tension arises it is resolved amicably, probably in discussion, and the level of tension and anxiety is usually low.

The core component of marital adjustment is marital satisfaction, and it has been extensively studied as a stand-alone concept. As such, it deserves separate consideration. Marital satisfaction has been defined as:

The subjective feelings of happiness, satisfaction, and pleasure experienced by a spouse when considering all current aspects of his marriage. This variable is conceived as a continuum running from much satisfaction to much dissatisfaction. Marital satisfaction is clearly an attitudinal variable and, thus, is a property of individual spouses. (Hawkins 1968, p. 648).

Again, scientists disagree about the definition. Some scholars conceptualize satisfaction rather as "the amount of congruence between the expectations a person has and the rewards the person actually receives" (Burr et al. 1979, p. 67). Because marital satisfaction is influenced not only by the congruence between expectations and rewards but also by other factors, the former definition is broader than the latter and thus is adopted here.

Although Hawkins's definition of marital satisfaction subsumes happiness, marital happiness is usually considered a distinct variable. According to Campbell et al. (1976), happiness is similar to satisfaction, but these two qualities do differ in one important aspect:

[A] term like "happiness" seems to evoke chiefly an absolute emotional state, whereas "satisfaction" implies a more cognitive judgment of a current situation laid against external standards of comparison such as "other people I know" or more private levels of aspiration. (p. 31)

Since happiness (and marital happiness) denotes an emotional state, it has been known to be affected by the mood swing of the respondent. For that reason, this article does not specifically use the concept "marital happiness." Since marital happiness, marital satisfaction, marital quality, and marital adjustment are highly related to each other, interchangeable use of these terms is relatively common.

Although many scientists treat marital satisfaction as a factor of marital adjustment, there exist possibly major differences between these two concepts about the unit of analysis. Because satisfaction is a subjective property of an actor, there are two kinds of marital satisfaction in a marriage, the husband's and the wife's, and they are conceptually distinct. As Jessie Bernard (1972) stated, there are always two marriages in a family; the husband's marriage and the wife's marriage. Then, do these two marital satisfactions go hand in hand, or are they independent of each other? Research has produced mixed findings. In general, the more satisfied one spouse is with the marriage, the more satisfied is the other, but the correlation between the husband's and the wife's marital satisfactions is far from perfect (Spanier and Cole 1976). Marital adjustment or quality, on the other hand, can be either an individual or a dyadic property. When we say "a well-adjusted marriage," we refer to the dyad, while when we say, "She is well adjusted to her marriage," we refer to the individual. No one has proposed valid measurement techniques for examining marital adjustment as a dyadic property, although some observational methods might be considered.

Another difference between marital satisfaction and marital adjustment is that while the former is a static product, the latter can be a dynamic process. In fact, marital adjustment is sometimes defined as a dynamic process, and marital satisfaction is listed as one of the outcomes of the adjustment process (Spanier and Cole 1976, pp. 127–128). It has also been proposed that marital adjustment be defined as a dynamic process and yet be measured as a state at a given point in time, a "snapshot" conception (Spanier and Cole 1976). Nevertheless, this connotation of dynamic process in the term "adjustment" has been criticized (Trost 1985) as a confusion of its meaning, because no measure of "adjustment" involves dynamic change, such as negotiation between the spouses.

Without agreeing on either which term to use or on the definition of such a term, researchers have tried for decades to measure marital adjustment, quality, or satisfaction. Burgess and Cottrell (1939) created one of the first measures of marital adjustment from twenty-seven questions pertaining to five subareas (agreement; common interests and joint activities; affection and mutual confidences; complaints; and feelings of being lonely, miserable, and irritable). Along with numerous attempts at measuring marital adjustment, Locke and Wallace (1959) modified Burgess and Cottrell's measure and called it the Marital Adjustment Test. Based on factor analysis, the test consists of fifteen questions ranging from the respondent's overall happiness in the marriage, the degree of agreement between the spouses in various matters, how they resolve conflicts, and the number of shared activities, to the fulfillment of their expectations about the marriage.

This measure was widely used until a new measure, the Dyadic Adjustment Scale, was proposed (Spanier 1976). It is composed of thirty-two questions and four subscales. The dyadic satisfaction subscale is composed of ten questions such as "How often do you and your partner quarrel?" and "How often do you discuss or have you considered divorce, separation, or terminating your relationship?" The dyadic cohesion subscale is made up of five questions, "Do you and your mate engage in outside interests together?" and "How often would you say the following events occur between you and your mate?—have a stimulating exchange of ideas, laugh together, calmly discuss something, or work together on a project." The dyadic consensus subscale is based on thirteen questions on "the extent of agreement or disagreement between you and your partner." Items range from handling family finances, religious matters, and philosophy of life, to household tasks. Finally, the affectional expression subscale is composed of four questions related to affection and sex, two of which are agreement questions on demonstration of affection and sex relations.

All the above measures have been criticized as lacking a criterion against which the individual items are validated (Norton 1983; Fincham and Bradburn 1987). Some scholars have argued that only global and evaluative items, rather than content-specific and descriptive ones, should be included in marital adjustment or quality measures, because the conceptual domain of the latter is not clear. What constitutes a well-adjusted marriage may differ from one couple to another as well as cross-culturally and historically. Whether or not spouses kiss each other every day, for example, may be an indicator of a well-adjusted marriage in the contemporary United States but not in some other countries. Thus, marital adjustment or quality should be measured by the spouses' evaluation of the marriage as a whole rather than by its specific components. Instead of "How often do you and your husband (wife) agree on religious matters?" (a content-specific description), it is argued that such questions as "All things considered, how satisfied are you with your marriage?" and "How satisfied are you with your husband (wife) as a spouse?" (a global evaluation) should be used. By the same reasoning, the Kansas Marital Satisfaction (KMS) scale has been proposed. This test includes only three questions: "How satisfied are you with your (a) marriage: (b) husband (wife) as a spouse: and (c) relationship with your husband (wife)?" (Schumm et al. 1986).

Traditional indexes also have been criticized for their lack of theoretical basis and the imposition of what constitutes a "successful marriage." On the basis of exchange theory, Ronald Sabatelli (1984) developed the Marital Comparison Level Index (MCLI), which measures marital satisfaction by the degree to which respondents feel that the outcomes derived from their marriages compare with their expectations. Thirty-six items pertaining to such aspects of marriage as affection, commitment, fairness, and agreement were originally included, and thirty-two items were retained in the final measure. Because this measure is embedded in the tradition of exchange theory, it has strength in its validity.


How is the marital adjustment of a given couple predicted? According to Lewis and Spanier's (1979) comprehensive work, three major factors predict marital quality; social and personal resources, satisfaction with lifestyle, and rewards from spousal interaction.

In general, the more social and personal resources a husband and wife have, the better adjusted their marriage is. Material and nonmaterial properties of the spouses enhance their marital adjustment. Examples include emotional and physical health, socioeconomic resources such as education and social class, personal resources such as interpersonal skills and positive self-concepts, and knowledge they had of each other before getting married. It was also found that good relationships with and support from parents, friends, and significant others contribute to a well-adjusted marriage. Findings that spouses with similar racial, religious, or socioeconomic backgrounds are better adjusted to their marriages are synthesized by this general proposition.

The second major factor in predicting marital adjustment is satisfaction with lifestyle. It has been found that material resources such as family income positively affect both spouses' marital adjustment. Both the husband's and the wife's satisfaction with their jobs enhances better-adjusted marriages. Furthermore, the husband's satisfaction with his wife's work status also affects marital adjustment. The wife's employment itself has been found both instrumental and detrimental to the husbands' marital satisfaction (Fendrich 1984). This is because the effect of the wife's employment is mediated by both spouses' attitudes toward her employment. When the wife is in the labor force, and her husband supports it, marital adjustment can be enhanced. On the other hand, if the wife is unwilling to be employed, or is employed against her husband's wishes, this can negatively affect their marital adjustment. Marital adjustment is also affected by the spouses' satisfaction with their household composition, by how well the couple is embedded in the community, and the respondent's health (Booth and Johnson 1994).

Parents' marital satisfaction was found to be a function of the presence, density, and ages of children (Rollins and Galligan 1978). Spouses (particularly wives) who had children were less satisfied with their marriages, particularly when many children were born soon after marriage at short intervals. The generally negative effects of children on marital satisfaction and marital adjustment could be synthesized under this more general proposition about satisfaction with lifestyle.

It has been consistently found that marital satisfaction plotted against the couple's family life-cycle stages forms a U-shaped curve (Rollins and Cannon 1974; Vaillant and Vaillant 1993). Both spouses' marital satisfaction is quite high right after they marry, hits the lowest point when they have school-age children, and gradually bounces back after all children leave home. To illustrate this pattern, publicly available data from the National Survey of Families and Households (collected in 1987 and 1988) are analyzed here. Figure 1 shows the result. While husbands' average marital satisfaction hit the lowest point when their oldest child was between 3 and 5 years old, wives satisfaction was lowest when their oldest child was between 6 and 12 years old.

This pattern has been interpreted as a result of role strain or role conflict between the spousal, parental, and work roles of the spouses. Unlike right after the marriage and the empty-nest stages, having children at home imposes the demand of being a parent in addition to being a husband or wife and a worker. When limited time and energy cause these roles to conflict with each other, the spouses feel strain, which results in poor marital adjustment (Lavee et al. 1996). Along this line of reasoning, Wesley Burr et al. (1979) proposed that marital satisfaction is influenced by the qualities of the individual's role enactment as a spouse and of the spouse's role enactment. They argue further, from the symbolic-interactionist perspective, that the relationship between marital role enactment and marital satisfaction is mediated by the importance placed on spousal role expectations.

As seen above, the concept of family life cycle seems to have some explanatory power for marital adjustment. Researchers and theorists have found, however, that family life cycle is multidimensional and conceptually unclear. Once a relationship between a particular stage in the family life cycle and marital adjustment is identified, further variables must be added to explain that relationship—variables such as the wife's employment status, disposable income, and role strain between spousal and parental roles (Crohan 1996; Schumm and Bugaighis 1986). Furthermore, the proportion of variance in marital adjustment "explained" by the family's position in its life cycle is small, typically less than 10 percent (Rollins and Cannon 1974). In the case of our analysis above, it is only 3 percent for both husbands and wives. Thus, some scholars conclude that family life cycle has no more explanatory value than does marriage or age cohort (Spanier and Lewis 1980).

The last major factor in predicting marital adjustment is the reward obtained from spousal interaction. On the basis of exchange theory, Lewis and Spanier summarize past findings that "the greater the rewards from spousal interaction, the greater the marital quality" (Lewis and Spanier 1979, p. 282). Rewards from spousal interaction include value consensus; a positive evaluation of oneself by the spouse; and one's positive regard for things such as the physical, mental, and sexual attractiveness of the spouse. Other rewards from spousal interaction include such aspects of emotional gratification as the expression of affection; respect and encouragement between the spouses; love and sexual gratification; and egalitarian relationships. Married couples with effective communication, expressed in self-disclosure, frequent successful communication, and understanding and empathy, are better adjusted to their marriages (Erickson 1993). Complementarity in the spouses' roles and needs, similarity in personality traits, and sexual compatibility all enhance marital adjustment. Finally, frequent interaction between the spouses leads to a well-adjusted marriage. The lack of spousal conflict or tensions should be added to the list of rewards from spousal interactions.

In this context, it is interesting to compare the average marital quality between men and women (Figure 1). The husbands' average marital quality is higher than the wives' except before they have their first child. The wife's marital quality is initially higher than the husband's, but it decreases after the arrival of her first baby. After that, it tends to be lower than that of her husband during the entire span of their marriage. Given that women perform most of the child care and household work, the steep decline in the average marital quality for women from Stage 1 to Stage 3 can be interpreted as a result of this burden of household work and child care. Women's rewards from marriage are lower than those of men, on the average, and this differential appears as a gender difference in marital adjustment over the family life-cycle stages.

Symbolic interactionists also argue that relative deprivation of the spouses affects their marital satisfaction: If, after considering all aspects of the marriage, spouses believe themselves to be as well off as their reference group, they will be satisfied with their marriages. If they think they are better off or worse off than others who are married, they will be more or less satisfied with their marriages, respectively (Burr et al. 1979).


It has been widely shown that married persons tend to be better adjusted in their lives than either never-married, separated, divorced, or widowed persons. This seems true not only in the area of psychological adjustments such as depression and general life satisfaction, but also in the area of physical health. Married people are more likely to be healthy and to live longer. Two factors should be considered to account for this relationship. First, psychologically and physically well-adjusted persons are more likely to get married and stay married. Second, the favorable socioeconomic status of married persons may explain some of this relationship. Nevertheless, scholars generally agree that marriage has a positive effect on personal adjustment, in both psychological and physical aspects.

If marriages in general affect personal adjustment in a positive fashion, it is likely that well-adjusted marriages lead to well-adjusted lives. Past research shows just this, though the findings should be cautiously interpreted. Some people tend to favorably answer "adjustment" questions, whether the questions are about their marriages, their personal lives in general, or their subjective health. The apparent positive relationship may be spurious. Nevertheless, if the psychological adjustment is a composite of the adjustments in various aspects of life (i.e., marriage, family, work, health, friendship, etc.), high marital adjustment should lead to high psychological adjustment. In addition, positive effects of well-adjusted marriages on physical health may be accounted for, in part, by psychosomatic aspects of physical health.

This relationship provides an important policy implication of marital adjustment. Well-adjusted marriages may reduce health service costs, involving both mental and physical health. This is in addition to the more obvious reduction in social service costs derived from unstable and/or unhappy marriages. Children of divorce who need special care and domestic violence are just two examples through which poorly adjusted marriages become problematic and incur social services expenses.

Does marital adjustment affect the stability of a marriage? Does a better-adjusted marriage last longer than a poorly adjusted one? The answer is generally yes, but this is not always the case. Some well-adjusted marriages end in divorce, and many poorly adjusted marriages endure. As for the latter, John Cuber and Peggy Harroff conducted research on people whose marriages "lasted ten years or more and who said that they have never seriously considered divorce or separation" (1968, p. 43). They claim that not all the spouses in these marriages are happy and that there are five types of long-lasting marriages. In a "conflict-habituated marriage," the husband and the wife always quarrel. In a "passive-congenial marriage," the husband and the wife take each other for granted without zest, while "devitalized marriages" started as loving but have degenerated to passive-congenial marriages. In a "vital marriage," spouses enjoy together such things as hobbies, careers, or community services, while in a "total marriage," spouses do almost everything together. It should be noted that even conflict-habituated or devitalized marriages can last as long as vital or total marriages. For people in passive-congenial marriages, the conception and the reality of marriage are devoid of romance and are different from other people's.

What then determines the stability of marriage and how the marital adjustment affects it? It is proposed that although marital adjustment leads to marital stability, two factors intervene; alternative attractions and external pressures to remain married (Lewis and Spanier 1979). People who have both real and perceived alternatives to poorly adjusted marriages—other romantic relationships or successful careers—may choose divorce. A person in a poorly adjusted marriage may remain in it if there is no viable alternative, if a divorce is unaffordable or would bring an intolerable stigma, or if the person is exceptionally tolerant of conflict and disharmony in the marriage. Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that even though marital stability is affected by alternative attractions and external pressures, marital adjustment is the single most important factor in predicting marital stability. Lack of large-scale longitudinal data and adequate statistical technique have hampered scholars' efforts to establish this link between marital adjustment and stability. Given recent availability of longitudinal and technological development, this area of research holds a high promise.

(see also: Divorce; Family Roles; Interpersonal Attraction; Marriage)


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Yoshinori Kamo