Session #3 - Marriage and Family Networks

Changes in Spousal Relationships over the Marital Life Course

Paul Amato

Penn State University

Spencer James
Brigham Young University

We used six waves of data from the Marital Instability over the Life Course study to examine long-term trends in three aspects of spousal relationships: marital happiness, the frequency of participation in shared activities, and discord (n = 1,617). Across the full sample, happiness declined gradually during the first 20 years of marriage and then stabilized. Participation in shared activities declined during the first 20 years of marriage but increased in subsequent years. Discord between spouses declined continuously throughout the duration of marriage. These trends depended, however, on whether marriages ended in divorce. Happiness did not decline among spouses who remained continuously married but declined dramatically among spouses headed for divorce. Correspondingly, shared activities declined more sharply, and discord rose (rather than declined), among spouses headed for divorce. Reports of declines in happiness, decreases in the frequency of shared activities, and increases in discord prior to divorce were more marked among wives than husbands. Trends in spousal relationships did not vary with marriage order (first versus subsequent marriages) or whether spouses were college graduates.  Overall, and contrary to some prior studies, our results suggest that marriages that remain together show little evidence of deterioration in relationship quality over the marital life course. Most of the decline in relationship quality reported in previous studies appears to be due to the inclusion of marriages headed for divorced. Nevertheless, period effects were apparent, with marital relationships (irrespective of duration) becoming more troubled during the 1980s and 1990s but rebounding in 2000.

Please click each link to view the PDF: Presentation / Paper

Commitment And Selection In Long Term Marriages

Scott Feld & Joey Marshall
Purdue University

We suggest that commonly drawn inferences about the benefits of marriage are based on misinterpretations of the evidence from which they are drawn. Our general argument is that marriage is a  prototypical “selective behavior” in which people make choices based on the anticipation that their particular marriages are likely to be beneficial to them. Therefore, findings that married people have better outcomes than unmarried people that are routinely interpreted as indicating general benefits of marriage are more reasonably interpreted to indicate that marriage is good for those particular people for whom their marriages are good.  Those findings provide no evidence that others would have realized similar benefits if they had taken their own (presumably generally less promising) opportunities for marriage.. Nevertheless, the conclusion that marriage is generally good for people is taken to imply that commitment to marriage would preserve more marriages and therefore be good for people.   Our analysis of GSS data suggests that low commitment does not seem to drive selection out of marriage; we find that commitment levels in continuing marriages tend to go down over time rather than up. Furthermore,  low commitment does not particularly lead people with problems to select out of marriage; specifically we do not find that people with low commitment require better health to stay in their marriages than people with high commitment.   Rather, we find that people who are healthy tend to express higher marital commitment than unhealthy people. We interpret these findings to indicate that marital commitment is a “selective behavior” similar to marriage  in  often indicating reasonably accurate anticipation of (but not necessarily causing) rewarding future states.  Thus, even though people with higher marital commitment tend to experience better outcomes, these findings raise doubts whether any intervention directed to specifically raising marital commitment would be beneficial to people.

Paper and presentation coming soon.

Who wants the Breakup?
Gender and Breakup in Heterosexual Couples

Michael J. Rosenfeld

Stanford University

Women initiate most divorces in the US, yet the reasons why women are more likely to initiate divorce are poorly understood. In this paper, I use a new longitudinal study of relationships and breakups in the US, the How Couples Meet and Stay Together surveys. The data examine the gender of breakup initiation for both marital and non-marital relationships for the first time. The results show that women’s initiation of breakup is specific to heterosexual marriage. Men and women in non-marital heterosexual relationships in the US are equally likely to initiate breakup. The results are consistent with a feminist critique of heterosexual marriage as a gendered institution in which wives find less satisfaction than husbands do. I will also describe survey data that show that among unmarried adults 35 and younger, women are more likely to say they desire marriage. Among unmarried adults 36 and over, women are much less likely than men to report a desire to be married.

Please click each link to view the PDF: Presentation