The News Story – ‘Married at First Sight’ and our attitude towards marriage
Today’s depressingly high divorce rate prompts more queries than ever before on what makes a marriage stick. More money? More education? A bigger wedding? Cable’s FYI Network has speculated on just this question in its new hit reality series, “Married at First Sight,” in which three couples who have been matched based on compatibility tests meet on their wedding day, then spend the next month figuring out if they want to stay married.
This week’s conclusion led to more media chatter on making marriage work. Stacia L. Brown of the Washington Post speculates that the show’s success is due to its appeal to a deeper societal loneliness. “[A]s you root for the couples to work through their issues and ‘beat the odds,’” she writes, “you become increasingly aware that the experience isn’t really about them. It’s about you.”
The couples, she says, talk through problems like past relationships, family trauma, work schedules, and all the other challenges that a married couple would face. Why would anyone consent to such an arrangement? “Because the odds seem just as even as they’ve been in past failed relationships,” writes Brown. “Because too many bad partner picks can make anyone second-guess her own judgement [sic].”
Brown lists additional challenges common to marriage, but other research indicates that perhaps marriage isn’t as much of a gamble as we like to believe. And perhaps we have more control over whether our marriages last than a reality TV show might indicate.
The New Research – The giving marriage
What is the glue that holds marriages together? Why do some couples have gloriously happy marriages, while others split in anguish?
W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and Jeffrey Dew at Utah State University point out that while many, many recent studies have focused on how couples’ access to and use of different resources (such as education, income, and division of labor) impact their chances of staying together, very few have focused on “other factors now influencing marriages, including positive attitudes and behaviors that may be associated with high-quality, stable marriages.”
Wilcox and Dew propose to study just one of those positive attitudes and behaviors, namely generosity, or “giving to one’s spouse.” Specifically, they “operationalize generosity as giving good things to one’s spouse by regularly engaging in small acts of kindness, expressing affection, expressing respect, and forgiving one’s spouse.” They speculate that generosity may be one of many “relationship maintenance” behaviors, which they suggest “are a form of social exchange in contemporary marriages.”
The researchers use a sample of 2,724-2,730 adults drawn from the SMG, a survey measuring couples’ experiences. Their dependent variables were marital satisfaction, marital conflict, and perceived divorce likelihood, measured by couples’ responses to questions regarding such factors as fairness, communication quality, sexual intimacy, conflict over children or money, etc. The independent variable was generosity, expressed through measuring “(a) small acts of kindness . . . (b) expressions of respect, (c) displays of affection, and (d) forgiveness.” The researchers analyzed these answers using a number of statistical models, while controlling for participants’ age, marital duration, number of minors in the home, education, total household income, and race/ethnicity.
The study found that the “partial correlations suggested relationships between spousal reports of generosity toward the participant, participant reports of generosity toward their spouse, and marital quality.” More specifically, “[e]very one-unit increase of spouses’ reported generosity was associated with a 0.35-point increase in participants’ reported marital quality (ß = .31), a 0.17-point decrease in participants’ reports of martial conflict (ß = – .14), and a 0.56-point decrease in participants’ subjective divorce likelihood (ß = -.20).”
Due to limitations in their data, the researchers were not able to determine causality. Nonetheless, the study does point out an interesting correlation between high marital quality and high levels of generosity. Also intriguing is that couples experience higher levels of marital quality both when they give and when they receive generosity within their marriages, seemingly indicating that intentional kindness has more to do with marital satisfaction than we might realize.
If acting like you have a better marriage may be a key to actually gaining a better marriage, perhaps struggling couples should give higher doses of generosity a try.
(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King, “New Research,” The Family in America, Fall 2013, Vol. 27 Number 4. Study: Jeffrey Dew and W. Bradford Wilcox, “Generosity and the Maintenance of Marital Quality,” Journal of Marriage and Family75 [October 2013]: 1,218-28.)