This article discusses how spouses in marital relationships that had lasted for more than 20 years managed conflict (Mackey & O'Brien, 1995). The focus of the discussion is on gender and ethnicity influences on modes of coping with conflict within these marriages. The couples participating were selected purposefully to represent ethnic, religious, and educational diversity.
Three trends influenced the design of the research on which this article is based:
1. The United States has the highest divorce rate in the world; it reached nearly 50 percent of all marriages by the late 1980s (Billingsley, 1990; Chadwick & Heaton, 1992; Lewis, 1988).
2. Marital difficulties are one of the leading reasons people seek psychological help from social workers and other human services professionals (Cowing et al., 1985; Lewis, 1988). Given increased life expectancies of the U.S. population (Ade-Ridder, 1985), it is important to understand the relational dynamics of lasting marriages, because research suggests that couples who are both dissatisfied and satisfied with their marriages remain together (Kelly & Conley, 1987; Lewis & Spanier, 1979; Swensen & Moore, 1984). With these couples living together for longer periods of time, there may be increasing numbers of older couples seeking the services of social work practitioners.
3. Relatively little research has been reported on lasting relationships and even less on ethnically diverse marriages. Research on marriage has tended to focus on white, college-educated, middle-class couples (Lauer, Lauer, & Kerr, 1990; Levenson, Carstensen, & Gottman, 1993; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1995). Although findings from these studies may be helpful in treating couples with marital difficulties, the results have limitations for practice with clients from different social and ethnic groups (Billingsley, 1990; Vega, 1990; Wamboldt & Reiss, 1989).
Although working-class and middle-class couples may face similar issues in their relationships, there are differences in how diverse groups resolve conflicts (Rubin, 1976). Factors important to marital stability among white, middle-class Americans may be different from those of other cultural groups (Frisbie, Bean, & Eberstein, 1980).
Our research is in response to a challenge that social workers encounter in their daily practice: helping couples to manage conflicts in their relationships and to manage interpersonal differences in ways that enrich marital satisfaction. Given demographic trends, social workers increasingly will be working with ethnically diverse and older couples who may need help with these problems. The findings from our study have implications for prevention of debilitating conflicts through psychoeducational interventions informed by sensitivity to gender and ethnic differences in an older population.
Framing the Dimensions of the Study
As part of our research on lasting relationships, we adopted a developmental, life span perspective (Dilworth-Anderson & Burton, 1996) in exploring how spouses coped with conflict over the years. On the basis of that perspective, we organized the study to explore several dimensions of marital relationships over time. This article focuses on one of these dimensions: conflict and its management. Other dimensions included decision making, sexual relations, psychological intimacy, parenting, communication and satisfaction with relationships (Mackey & O'Brien, 1995).
Levinson's (1986, 1996) hypothesis of adult life structures and transitions was useful in understanding how spouses adapted to marriage. Levinson conceptualized structures as dynamic plateaus in which modifications in various dimensions of relationships were integrated and consolidated, albeit tenuously and temporally. Transitions involved changes as people negotiated modifications in the structure of existing dimensions. In terms of marriage, the engagement period was conceptualized as a transition into the structure of early marriage. …