A Social-Cognitive Perspective
on the Maintenance and Deterioration
of Relationship Satisfaction
Benjamin R. Karney
James K. McNulty
Nancy E. Frye University of Florida
The beginning of a romantic relationship is frequently characterized by attraction to the partner, commitment to the relationship, and optimism about the future. What happens to these initially positive beliefs over time? Research on social cognition has identified a number of ways that important and rewarding beliefs may be protected from disconfirmation (for a review, see Kunda, 1990). For example, people have been shown to ignore evidence that contradicts their desired beliefs (Miller, 1997), generate rationalizations to support these beliefs (Murray & Holmes, 1993), and demonstrate better memory for events that are consistent with these beliefs (Sanitioso, Kunda, & Fong, 1990). Furthermore, people have been shown to adhere to desired beliefs even when confronted with evidence that logically should undermine those beliefs (Nisbett & Ross, 1980). Thus, research on social cognition leads to the strong prediction that initially positive beliefs about a romantic relationship, being very important and highly rewarding, should be among the most stable and enduring beliefs that people have.
The irony of romantic relationships is that this prediction rarely holds true. Most romantic relationships, despite promising beginnings, nevertheless end. This pattern is especially noteworthy in marital relationships. Although newlyweds presumably approach marriage as a source of satisfaction and fulfillment, nearly two thirds of all first marriages end in divorce or permanent separation (Castro-Martin & Bumpass, 1989), and the dissolution rate for remarriages is even higher (Cherlin, 1992). Thus, for