Benjamin Karney is an Associate Professor of Social Psychology and co-director of the Relationship Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on how marriages change or remain stable over time, and in particular how relationship maintenance is constrained or enhanced by the contexts in which it takes place. Currently this includes research on marriages in the military, funded by the Department of Defense, and marriages in low-income populations, funded by the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development. He received the Gerald R. Miller Award for Early Career Achievement from the International Association for Relationship Research in 2004 and has twice been the recipient of the National Council on Family Relation’s Reuben Hill Research and Theory Award for outstanding contributions to family science. His textbook, Intimate Relationships (coauthored with Thomas Bradbury), will be published by W. W. Norton in January, 2010.
People rarely change their minds about subjects that are important to them. Those who favor gun control today are likely to favor gun control ten years from now, and those who vote for Democratic candidates today are likely to do so throughout their lives.
Yet intimate relationships, and marriages in particular, are the exception to this rule. After two people stand before everyone important to them in the world and publicly declare that they love each other and intend to remain together for the rest of their lives, everything social psychology has learned about the stability of publicly declared opinions suggests that these will be the most stable opinions of all (Festinger, 1957). Yet of course they aren’t. Despite the almost uniform happiness and optimism of newlyweds, most first marriages will end in divorce or permanent separation (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002), and the rate of dissolution for remarriages is even higher (Cherlin, 1992). In most cases, this represents a drastic and unwanted change in a highly valued belief, a change that is emotionally and financially costly to both members of the couple. Even in marriages that remain intact, newlyweds’ initially high levels of marital satisfaction tend to decline over time (VanLaningham, Johnson, & Amato, 2001). How can we account for this change? How is it that marital satisfaction declines so frequently, despite our best efforts to hold on to the positive feelings that motivate marriage in the first place? And what is it those couples that maintain their initial happiness are doing right?
What couples that stay happy are doing right
Understanding how marital satisfaction changes requires first understanding how thoughts and opinions about a marriage and a spouse are structured. Our representations of our partners are complex and multifaceted, consisting of perceptions that range from specific and concrete (e.g., “My spouse makes great pancakes.”) to global and evaluative (e.g., “My spouse is wonderful!”) (John, Hampson, & Goldberg, 1991). Although we are generally motivated to believe the best about our partners, we are not equally motivated or able to protect all our beliefs at all levels of abstraction (e.g., Dunning, 1995). For example, if my partner actually makes terrible pancakes, it is neither possible nor terribly important to believe otherwise. However, if I am to stay happily married, it is desirable to find a way to believe that my spouse is wonderful, and it is possible to do so by identifying and focusing on specific perceptions that might support this global belief.
That is what happy couples do. When couples in the early years of marriage are asked to rate which specific aspects of their relationships are most important to the success of their marriage, they generally point to whatever aspects of their relationship are most positive, and the spouses who demonstrate this tendency most strongly are the ones who are the happiest with their relationships overall (Neff & Karney, 2003). This selection process does not happen only at the beginning of the relationship. Over time, as specific aspects of the relationship change, with some parts becoming more positive and some becoming more negative, the couples who stay happiest overall are the ones who change their beliefs about what is important in their relationships accordingly, deciding that whatever aspects of the marriage have declined must not be so important after all (Neff & Karney, 2003). As a consequence of this continued process of selective attention, global evaluations of a marriage tend to be pretty stable from day to day, as these are the evaluations we are motivated to protect, but perceptions of specific aspects of the marriage tend to vary, more positive on good days and less positive on bad days (McNulty & Karney, 2001).
So what happens to those less positive specific perceptions? They don’t disappear. Even happy newlyweds readily acknowledge that their partners are not perfect in every way (Neff & Karney, 2005). Staying positive about the relationship requires that spouses find ways to integrate their perceptions of specific problems and disappointments within an overall positive view of the marriage. One way spouses can do this is by generating explanations for a spouse’s failings that limit any broader implications those failings may have. For example, if my spouse is distant and withdrawn one evening, deciding that my spouse’s behavior is a symptom of a difficult day at work (rather than a sign of a lack of interest in me) means that the behavior has no global implications for my marriage. For spouses who tend to make these sorts of charitable explanations for their partner’s disappointing or irritating behaviors, global evaluations of the marriage remain relatively stable from day to day even when perceptions of specific aspects of the relationship are fluctuating. For spouses who make less charitable explanations, blaming each other for faults and missteps, specific perceptions and global evaluations are more closely linked, such that the entire marriage seems less rewarding on days when specific elements are bad and the entire marriage seems more rewarding on days when specific elements are good (McNulty & Karney, 2001). In other words, making charitable explanations severs the link between specific negative perceptions and global evaluation of the marriage, leaving the global evaluations more resilient. Couples who are able to acknowledge their partner’s faults while maintaining positive views of their marriage overall have more stable satisfaction over time (Karney & Bradbury, 2000) and they are less likely to divorce in the early years of marriage (Neff & Karney, 2005).