WHAT MAKES OR BREAKS COUPLES’ RELATIONSHIPS? - Handbook of couples therapy

OBJECTIVE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE COUPLE It has been long assumed that similarity on a variety of variables such as personality, age, socioeconomic status, education, values, religious beliefs, ethnicity, and so on is conducive to relational satisfaction and stability . However, the recent research in these domains is mixed. Religion Regarding religious similarity, Heller and Wood found no differences in levels of intimacy between intramarried Jewish couples and intermarried couples with one Jewish partner. Interestingly, when interviewed, the intramarried couples saw their ethnic/religious bond as a source of mutual understanding, while intermarried couples found that the negotiation of their differences deepened intimacy for them. Also studying interand intramarried Jewish couples, Chinitz and Brown discovered that disagreement on religious issues, versus a couple’s status as interor intramarried, predicted marital dissatisfaction. Ethnicity Recent research on interethnic couples challenges the stereotype that these relationships are doomed to instability. Gaines and Brennan provide evidence that interethnic couples can be successful when differences are appreciated rather than just tolerated, when partners actively create their own unique relationship culture, and when each partner views the other as contributing to her or his personal growth via their cultural differences. For example, no differences in marital satisfaction were found between Mexican American couples, White American couples, and couples with one Mexican American and one White American partner , interracial White/Asian and intraracial Asian couples , or among interethnic African American/White couples in comparison to both monoethnic African American and monoethnic White couples . Regarding monoethnic couples, Allen and Olson developed a fivecategory typology of African American marriages, and tested their associations with marital satisfaction and stability. Each of the five types had unique profiles. Santisteban, Muir-Malcolm, Mitrani, and Szapocznik address variation within an ethnic or cultural group in terms of acculturation. Instability in a couples’ relationship is likely to occur when partners move through the acculturation process at varying rates. They note, an abrupt and accelerated reconfiguration of a couple’s egalitarian versus complementary relations dimension . . . cannot help but disrupt family functioning and affect their ability to reach joint decisions and set clear and consistent rules and consequences . Kelly and Floyd discovered that racial perspectives were key predictors of Black couple adjustment; again, conflicting attitudes held by Afrocentric Black men were associated with deterioration in Black couple relationships. Psychopathology Individual differences in levels of psychopathology, including trauma history, have been related to couple functioning. Regarding trauma, Nelson and Wampler compared clinic couples in which one or both partners had a history of childhood abuse with couples in which neither partner had a trauma history. Those couples in which one or both partners experienced early trauma reported lower levels of marital satisfaction and family cohesion. Similarly, Lev-Wiesel and Amir find that in couples where one member has been a Holocaust survivor with a posttraumatic stress disorder diagnosis, spouses report declines in marital quality, especially when the traumatized partner shares reminiscences or displays hostile behavior. In a study of over 1,300 Palestinian women, Haj-Yahia found that all forms of abuse were associated with lower levels of marital commitment, satisfaction, affection, happiness, and harmony. In a slightly different vein, Watt confirms that couples who come from alcoholic families report more marital instability and dissatisfaction. A great deal of attention has been given in the couples literature to the relationship between depression and couple functioning; recent studies continue to support this link in a variety of ways . In couples where one partner is depressed and the other is not, Benzon and Coyne identified spousal burden as key elements in the nondepressed partner’s mood. When the depressed partner was male, both patient and spouse had higher levels of depression. Katz, Monnier, Libet, Shaw, and Beach found that medical students’ depression was related to increased levels of depression in their spouses, as well as to reduced marital satisfaction. In an examination of women who had experienced a severe marital stressor What the Research Tells Us 433 434 SPECIAL ISSUES FACED BY COUPLES , Cano, Christian-Herman, O’Leary, and Avery-Leaf determined that 16 months after the event, levels of marital discord, depression, and relationship dissolution were elevated. Children Another variable of interest is presence or absence of children in couples’ lives. Recent research confirms that marital intimacy declines between one month and three years after children are born , regardless of whether or not it is a first child. Differences in attitudes toward child rearing were associated with drop-offs in marital intimacy as well. In a review of the research on families with young children, Demo and Cox indicate that after a period of initial adjustment, most couples regain satisfactory levels of marital quality. This is more likely when the marital bond was strong to begin with, when neither partner was depressed, when solid problem-solving communication skills were in place, when parenting expectations were realistic, and when fathers played an active role in caregiving. Negative relationships with inlaws have also been shown to erode marital satisfaction and stability . Relationship Status The status of a couple as married or cohabiting has also been examined in terms of relational happiness . These investigators compared dating, cohabiting, and married couples on indices of intimacy and dyadic adjustment. Married couples had lower levels of affectional expression and engagement in comparison to cohabiting or dating couples. However, levels of intimacy were similar across all three groups. Both married and cohabiting couples had high levels of agreement regarding intimacy and relational adjustment factors in comparison to dating couples. Gender Gender is a complex and multifaceted construction, and its influence on intimate relationships has been very widely studied. It would be impossible to comprehensively review this literature in this chapter ; thus, only select studies relating to couples’ relationship quality and stability will be included. For example, Acitelli finds that women see relationship talk as a routine way of maintaining relationships, while men only value such discussions when problems arise. Men may see the need to share activities as more important to relationship maintenance than women. She views the key to relationship duration as agreement on what it takes for each partner to maintain the relationship. Kiecolt-Glaser and Newton note that men and women’s experiences of conflicted versus well-functioning relationships have differential effects on health. Although both men and women experience negative health effects in conjunction with poor marital quality, in general, the associations between relational dysfunction and poor health outcomes are stronger for women than for men. Kiecolt-Glaser and Newton found this to be true in regard to cancer, heart disease, acute and chronic pain, and general rates of morbidity and mortality. Marital conflict/ hostility has been linked to higher levels of physiological arousal and more sustained arousal for women than for men; this may be a factor in women’s suppressed immune functioning when marital functioning is poor. Broadly speaking, both men and women benefit from supportive couple relationships, which facilitate both health-promoting behaviors and health itself. Croyle and Waltz report that women had higher levels of emotional awareness in their relationships than did men, and this higher awareness was associated with less marital satisfaction. In particular, women were aware of hard emotions . When partners had differing levels of emotional awareness, lower relational satisfaction was evident for both men and women. Soft emotions such as fear and sadness showed no relationship to marital satisfaction for either gender. Sexual Orientation Like gender, sexual orientation and sexual identities are intricate biopsychosocial constructions. The literature on the nature of well-functioning gay, lesbian, and bisexual couples is small, but growing. Ossana summarized the literature from the previous decade and concluded that lesbian and gay couples have relationships that are as satisfying as those of heterosexuals and that the mechanisms for relational satisfaction are similar across sexual orientation. This appears to be true despite the fact that same-sex couples face unique challenges. Kurdek , reports that gay and lesbian couples report higher levels of comfort with closeness than heterosexual-nonparent couples. Lesbian couples had higher levels of equality, satisfaction, positive problem solving, and dyadic cohesion in comparison to heterosexual-nonparent couples, as well as lower levels of relationship costs. Gay couples reported lower levels of relationship commitment than heterosexual-nonparent couples. In an earlier study with both gay/lesbian and opposite-sex couples, Kurdek found that the degree of commitment in close relationships over time could be predicted by individuals perceptions of their own constraints, their own attractions, and their partner’s attractions. Constraints are those factors that keep people from leaving relationships, while attractions are those factors that draw people into relationships. In a qualitative study looking at the relational challenges of HIV-serodiscordant gay couples, Palmer and Bor note that partners must negotiate a series relationship of shifts regarding caregiving, boundaries, sexual behaviors, and their futureall within a context of loss and often a hostile environment. Palmer and Bor cite mutuality and openness to communication as key for couples to cope together and for their relationship to remain intact. Intersections A recent trend in the couples’ literature has been to study more than one status variable at a time. Hall and Greene investigated class differences in African American lesbian relationships. They discovered that class differences were cited as a primary cause of relational strain and dissolution. For African American gay men, McLean, Marini, and Pope found racial identity to be unrelated to relational satisfaction. Beals and Peplau determined that lesbians who were mismatched on levels of political activism were less satisfied in their What the Research Tells Us 435 436 SPECIAL ISSUES FACED BY COUPLES relationships; those who had similar and moderate levels of political activity were most satisfied. Jordan and Deluty determined that when lesbian partners had discrepant levels of identity self-disclosure, they experienced lower levels of relationship quality. Dillaway and Broman found complex relationships between gender, race, and class in their study of marital satisfaction in almost 500 dualincome couples and suggest that studying these variables in isolation is problematic. Inequalities among the structural variables they measured were related to lower levels of couple adjustment. Haddock , who likewise investigated dual-income couples, found that these couples do better when divisions of labor are equitable and when they were not locked into traditional gender-role expectations. Personality Individuals’ personalities may also contribute to couples’ satisfaction and stability in relationships. Asendorpf reviews the literature showing an association between higher levels of neuroticism and lower levels of marital quality. Lykken makes an argument for the heritability of negative personality traits, noting that when one member of a pair of identical twins divorces, the chance that the other twin will do so as well is extremely high. Trait hostility is also reliably linked to poor relational functioning, especially for men; men’s hostility likewise influences their female partner’s emotional health . Watson, Hubbard, and Wiese examined associations between the Big Five personality traits , positive and negative affectivity, and marital satisfaction. As predicted, people high in positivity rate their relationships as more satisfying and those high in negativity rate their relationships as much less satisfying. Extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness were also reliable predictors of satisfaction; neuroticism was associated with dissatisfaction, and openness was unrelated to marital quality. When rating their partners, the only reliable indicator of relationship satisfaction was partner negativity. Personality and affectivity explained up to a third of the variance in marital satisfaction scores, indicating that individual personality does make a difference in the extent to which couples are happy. The work of Robins, Caspi, and Moffitt shows similar trends. Each individual in the couples they studied contributed independently to relationship outcomes. Relational happiness was associated with partner’s low negative emotionality for both men and women. Women’s relational happiness was also predicted by her partner’s high positive emotionality and constraint . AFFECTIVE PROCESSES More than one researcher has noted that positive affect is curiously understudied in the literature on couples adjustment ; however, that is changing. Findings are converging on the discovery that relationship dissolution is not so much a function of high levels of negativity per se, but of declines in positivity over time , especially when predicting the dissolution of long-term relationships . Gottman and colleagues have found that couples use positive affect to both soothe themselves and to deescalate conflicts; engaging in such a manner is predictive of successful relationships. The ratio of positive to negative interactions in couples’ interactions is also predictive of relationship success or failure. Gottman discusses the concept of positive sentiment override , in which couples make global, positive judgments regarding their relationships as well as interpreting negative messages from their partners as neutral. These processes are critical in maintaining happy relationships; similarly, the opposite processnegative sentiment overrideis destructive. Gottman also cites a ratio of 51 positive to negative interactions as indicative of wellfunctioning couples. Similarly, Flora and Segrin note a positive global sense of the relationship protects couples from feeling negative affect, even during complaining interactions. Attachment processes have been extensively studied in regard to adult romantic relationships. As noted by Scott and Cordova , adult attachment has been consistently related to marital adjustment. In their particular study of adult attachment, depression, and marital adjustment, Scott and Cordova determined that depressive symptoms are more strongly related to marital distress when husbands or wives reported anxiousambivalent attachment than when they are securely attached or when they report avoidant attachment styles. In another recent study of attachment, marital interaction, and relationship satisfaction, Feeney discovered that both greater attachment security and frequency of positive spouse behavior were related to marital satisfaction. Insecure individuals, especially those with anxious attachment, were more reactive to both positive and especially negative spousal behaviors. This pattern was also evident for those low in comfort with closeness. Secure people appear to hold more stable and global positive views of their partners, which allow them to be less reactive to day-to-day fluctuations in their partners’ behaviors. Interestingly, Feeney found these patterns to hold for those in long-term marriages but not for those in shorter-term marriages. COGNITIVE PROCESSES A variety of cognitive processes, particularly attribution, have been indicated in couples’ adjustment. Perceptions, attitudes, and a number of social-cognitive biases have likewise been examined. Over a 15-year course of research, Frank Fincham and associates have established a clear association between attributions and marital satisfaction. In summary, locating the cause of negative relationship events in the partner, viewing the cause as more stable and global, and seeing the partner’s behavior as intentional, blameworthy, and reflecting selfish motivation are more likely What the Research Tells Us 437 438 SPECIAL ISSUES FACED BY COUPLES among distressed partners . However, in their recent work, these researchers found that attributions were linked to satisfaction because they influence couples’ efficacy expectations . This suggests that therapists might do better to target efficacy versus attribution per se. Expanding on the extensive work of Fincham and colleagues, Karney, McNulty, and Frye found that when couples make positive and global evaluations of their relationship, these broad ways of thinking about their bond can carry them through specific negative events in the course of day-to-day interactions. When couples start to see their partners as responsible for specific negative events, their global evaluations of the relationship may also decline over time. Similarly, selective attention to negative partner behaviors, as well as interpreting neutral or positive partner behavior through a negative cognitive filter, is clearly related to marital distress . Challenging the assumption that people have an ingrained and stable attibutional style , Karney and Bradbury determined in a four-year longitudinal study that spouses’ attributions change over time along with fluctuations in their marital satisfaction and ongoing experiences in their relationships. This doesn’t mean that attributions are irrelevant to marital satisfaction, just that they are so interrelated that one can’t be said to cause the other. However, Karney and Bradbury found that if spouses started out with maladaptive attributions early on in their relationships, this did predict sharper declines in satisfaction over time. Recent work also shows that couples have hindsight biases when reporting relationship events over the course of a week . Marital satisfaction was measured at the beginning of the week, and couples then kept diaries of positive and negative relationship events for seven days. They were then asked to talk about what they remembered over the course of the week about their relationship. Those individuals who recalled mostly negative information were the same ones who had reported lower marital satisfaction at the beginning of the study. Obviously, this finding has implications for therapists who routinely ask similar questions. Carrère, Beuhlman, Gottman, Coan, and Ruckstuhl found that the perceptions of newlywed spouses predicted the stability of their marriages with a high degree of accuracy up to nine years after marriage. Selective attention to positive or negative aspects of one’s partner, or to the marriage itself, appear to influence the course of the relationship. Using the Oral History Interview, the authors found that spouses who had strong positive perceptions of their initial marital bond were more likely to remain together versus those who had negative perceptions . The authors theorize What the Research Tells Us 439 that positive perceptions of the marital bond may serve as a buffer during times of conflict or transition. BEHAVIORAL PROCESSES AND VERBAL INTERACTIONS A number of mutual, reciprocal processes are key in the maintenance of romantic relationships. Likewise, specific mechanisms and choices in couple interactions maintain cycles of conflict. Positive Processes In examining relationship-enhancing dynamics, Mills and Clark discovered that well-functioning relationships are communal relationships, which are defined as a relationship in which each member has a concern for the welfare of the other . . . [and is] motivated to provide benefits to the other without expecting a specific benefit in return . This differs from basic equity or exchange relationships in which more of a keeping score mentality is the norm. Strong communal bonds include understanding each other’s needs, compatibility of needs, agreement about the primacy of couple bond over other relationship connections, and benign interpretations of a partner’s intentions when needs are not met . This is not to say that equity has no role in relationship satisfaction. Equity theory has a long and well-substantiated history. Recently, Canary and Stafford have examined how perceptions of equity are related to specific relationship maintenance behaviors, such as openness, positivity, assurances, social networking, and sharing tasks. Well-functioning couples engage in these behaviors proactively to sustain their bond. A similar processpreemptive relationship maintenancehas been identified by Simpson, Ickes, and Oriña . Preemptive relationship tactics involve premeditated actions taken to avert problems before they develop, routinely addressing small issues so that they don’t escalate into larger ones, and cognitive strategies that focus on positive inferences about one’s partner and relationship. In long-term relationships, Aron, Norman, and Aron found that when couples periodically engage in mutually agreed on selfexpanding activities, marital quality increases. Self-expanding behaviors are novel, arousing, or exciting, rather than just being routinely pleasant; they serve to mitigate boredom and monotony. Interestingly, the opposite is also true; having established and cherished couple rituals and routines has been associated with marital satisfaction . Using interdependence theory as a base, Rusbult, Olsen, Davis, and Hannon note that people become more dependent on their relationships when their levels of satisfaction and investment are high, and when the quality of their potential alternatives is low. Higher dependence leads to increased commitment; that is, we are more motivated to stay in our 440 SPECIAL ISSUES FACED BY COUPLES relationships. This sustained level of commitment is then maintained by behavioral accommodation to one’s partner, willingness to sacrifice and to forgive, as well as by cognitive mechanisms such as a focus on interdependence, positive illusions, and derogation of alternatives. When both partners engage in such activities over time, trust is enhanced, and couples’ well-being results. The negotiation of the contradictions inherent in couple relationships has been shown to have important associations with relationship commitment and quality. Sahlstein and Baxter found that the working through of such basic couple dialectics such as autonomy-connection, openness-closedness, and stability-change are part and parcel of the process of commitmentcommitment is not a one-shot promise or an unchanging aspect of emotional investment. Sahlstein and Baxter suggest that living on friendly terms with paradoxes and contradictions is key in relationship maintenance. Behaviors such as denying contradictions or passively giving up in the face of contradictions leads to relationship decline. Functional strategies for handling contradictions include turn taking, compromise, integration , recalibration , and reaffirmation . In a similar vein, Whitton, Stanley, and Markman find that individuals who are successful in their intimate partnerships are willing to make sacrifices and report satisfaction about sacrificing itself. They define sacrifice as acts in which individuals give up some immediate desire in the interest of bettering their relationship or benefiting their partner . Such sacrificing often takes the form of stepping back from the immediate conflict to consider actions that will have a positive long-term impact on the relationship versus being reactive in the moment, or to return negativity with neutral or even positive affect. A number of studies find that rates of conflict are often relatively stable and that many couples engage in what Roloff and Johnson call serial arguments. Surprisingly, these enduring and often repetitive conflicts do not necessarily lead to relationship dissolution. In some cases they do, and in others they don’t. For example, Roloff and Johnson note that the more a couple is together, the higher their investment, the fewer important issues remain unresolved, and the more partners learn to be proactive in deterring conflict in the first place or to develop ways to temper conflict with positive affect. Gottman and colleagues likewise discuss what they call perpetual problems ; these are unresolvable, longstanding disagreements that are probably based on couples’ personalities. However, such perpetual problems do not contribute to relationship dissolution if they are handled with affection and amusement. Negative Processes Couples who develop destructive conflict patterns early on are more likely to dissolve their relationships . Heyman presents a concise summary of what these distressed couples’ verbal interaction patterns look like, stating that such couples: are more hostile, start their conversations more hostilely and maintain it during the course of the conversation, are more likely to reciprocate and escalate their partners’ hostility, are less likely to edit their behavior during conflict, resulting in longer negative reciprocity loops, emit less positive behavior, suffer more ill health effects from their conflicts, and are more likely to show demand-withdrawal patterns. Similarly, Gottman and colleagues conclude, The most consistent discriminator between distressed and non-distressed marriages is negative affect reciprocity . Negative interactions identified by Gottman and associates include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling . Both the perpetual problems noted earlier and potentially resolvable problems do become predictive of relationship failure when couples choose to handle them in the unproductive ways noted above. Additional support for the idea that initial negative views of one’s relationship can distort the perception of later interaction comes from Flora and Segrin . Individuals who began interactions with negative sentiment override did not respond to changes in the topic of conversation with their spouses. Not surprisingly, both spouses in this study reported declines in marital satisfaction with increased complaining; this was especially true for husbands. Relationships were happier when spouses could talk through complaints with more gazing behavior, less negative emotion, less wife talk time, and more husband talk time. The trends noted in the section above, both in terms of positive and negative interactions, were recently supported by Stanley, Markman, and Whitton in a creative study using a national random sample of over 900 participants and a phone survey. Through this atypical method, the researchers confirmed that [n]egative interaction was negatively associated with every index of relationship quality and positively associated with thoughts and talk of divorce . Their work also gives credence to the idea that for men, negative interaction is more predictive of divorce than for women; for women, lack of positive interaction is more predictive of divorce. Men also withdrew from interaction more often than did women, and for both genders, withdrawal was related to loss of connection and increased negativity. Furthermore, Stanley and colleagues conclude that conversational process is more important than conversational topic. However, Sanford found that topic difficulty did make a difference in couples’ communication, although indirectly. He suggests that difficult conflicts decrease relational satisfaction, which then leads to poor communication styles. For both members of the couple, discussions of their most difficult 442 SPECIAL ISSUES FACED BY COUPLES issues were accompanied by more negative forms of talk ; husbands also showed poor listening when discussing the couple’s most difficult topics. SEX Reviews of the literature on the association between sexual satisfaction and relational satisfaction generally support the expected positive link between these two aspects of couples’ lives . In a more recent study, Sprecher notes that most of the previous work has been cross-sectional, so changes in sexual satisfaction and relational satisfaction cannot be tracked across time. Sprecher’s 2002 study investigated sexual and relational satisfaction over a five-year period, allowing for more predictive tests. Although Sprecher continued to find that sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction were related for both genders and across both dating and married couples, predictive analyses failed to provide useful information because sexual satisfaction and relationship quality may influence each other almost simultaneously . Regarding staying together or breaking up, sexually dissatisfied couples broke up more often and sexually satisfied couples had longer-lasting relationships. Associations between relational and sexual satisfaction were stronger for men than for women; Sprecher states, I would speculate that men are more likely than women to use the quality of their sexual relationship as a barometer for the quality of the entire relationship . SYNTHESIS AND THERAPEUTIC IMPLICATIONS It is the opinion of this reviewer that affective processes are emerging as the central organizing element in understanding successful and unsuccessful coupling. How couples choose to react to discrepancies, demographic differences, or inequities in their relationships, the ways in which harmfully toned perceptions and cognitions influence couple judgments, and cycles of poor communication and conflict all seem to share a common link in the generation and maintenance of negative affect. Likewise, consistent positive affect appears to buffer couples against temporary fluctuations in their relationships and to maintain vital connections through its interrelationship with both cognitive processes and with pleasing behaviors. So it is not simply differences in personality, ethnicity, acculturation, values, religion, or what have you that matters; it is what each couple does with their differences that matters. Although it is no doubt true that all behavior, cognition, and affect interact in complex ways, emotion appears to provide a conceptual and practical starting point that is eminently useful.
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