sk any young couple how long
their marriage will last, and chances are, they’ll
say forever, says Clark University psychologist Jeffrey
Jensen Arnett, PhD, an expert on emerging adulthood.
In the latest Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, he
found that 86 percent of the more than 1,000 18- to 29-year-
old Americans surveyed expect their marriages to last a lifetime.
The participants who didn’t, Arnett presumes, don’t plan to
marry at all.
Yet statistics suggest that many of these young optimists
are only kidding themselves. According to the latest national
data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS),
the likelihood that a couple will celebrate their 20th wedding
anniversary today isn’t much greater than a coin toss: 52 percent
for women and 56 percent for men.
Although the rate of divorce has declined slowly and steadily
since the early 1980s, the rate of marriage has diminished
rapidly, with more people choosing to marry later in life (see
sidebar). As a result, experts routinely estimate that between 40
percent and 50 percent of marriages today will end in divorce.
For decades, psychologists have been trying to answer the
key question: What’s going on when two people who once said
“I do” to a lifetime together decide they’re better off apart?
Now, thanks to longitudinal studies of thousands of couples
and emerging research on previously understudied partnerships,
one answer is becoming more apparent: Why some couples stick
together isn’t so much a coin toss as a science.
“Today, we have a pretty good idea of what’s likely to make
for a good marriage,” says Stony Brook University researcher
Arthur Aron, PhD.
Some of those factors, including ethnic background and
socioeconomic status, are beyond a couple’s control. But, say
psychologists, there are many behaviors, such as how a couple
talks and fights and even the type of dates they go on, that
can be learned and practiced — and can give a pair a fighting
chance at ’til death do they part.
The hand you’re dealt
Several demographic factors predict how well a marriage might
fare, according to NCHS data. One is ethnicity: Asian women
and foreign-born Hispanic men, for example, have the highest
chance of the demographic groups studied that their marriages
will last 20 years ( 70 percent), while black women have the
lowest rate of reaching the two-decade mark ( 37 percent). For
white men and women as well as black men, the chances are just
more than 50 percent, NCHS reports.
Education also plays a role. Women with at least a bachelor’s
degree have a 78 percent shot that their marriages will last 20
years, compared with a 41 percent chance among women with
only a high school diploma, according to the NCHS data. Age
at marriage is also a predictor of marital success: Couples who
wed in their teens are more likely to divorce than those who
wait to marry. In addition, a person whose first child is born
after the wedding is more likely to stay married than one who
enters a marriage already a parent.
Another factor is finances. A 2009 report from the University
of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, for example, showed
that couples with no assets are 70 percent more likely to divorce
within three years than couples with $10,000 in assets. That
comes as no surprise to Terri Orbuch, PhD, of the University
of Michigan and Oakland University, who says arguments
over money — how to spend, save and split it — plague even
well-off couples. In her work with the Early Years of Marriage
Project, a longitudinal study of 373 couples who married in
1986 (funded by the National Institutes of Health), Orbuch
has found that seven out of 10 pairs name finances a cause of
relationship trouble. “Money is the No. 1 source of conflict or
tension,” she says.
Stress and the power of context
Other predictors of divorce are more contextual than personal.
Stress, for example, can cause even the strongest relationships to
crumble, psychologists’ research finds.
In one 2012 study, graduate student April Buck, PhD, and
social psychologist Lisa Neff, PhD, from the University of
Texas at Austin, evaluated diaries of 165 newlywed couples.
Every day for 14 days, each participant responded to prompts
about stressful circumstances (such as getting stuck in traffic),
the energy expended to handle those stressors, their positive
and negative interactions with partners, and their levels of
satisfaction with their relationships.
Not surprisingly, the researchers found that on the most
stressful days, spouses reported more negative behaviors toward
their partners and less satisfaction with their relationships. The
psychologists posit that the energy dedicated toward handling
stressful events detracts from the energy needed to maintain a
good relationship (Journal of Family Psychology, 2012).
Couples who rarely get a chance to restore their “reserves,”
such as those from low-income communities, can be
particularly prone to marital dissatisfaction and divorce. In one
study using data from about 4,500 respondents to the Florida
Family Formation Survey, social psychologist Benjamin Karney,
PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues
found that the marriages of lower-income couples were more
likely to be hurt by stressful life events and mental health
problems than the marriages of the more affluent couples.
Analysis of the same data set found that all respondents
— regardless of income level — reported similar problems
within their relationships, such as wanting more affection
and struggling to communicate effectively with their partners.