Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Predicting Marital Instability from Spouse and Observer Reports of Marital Interaction

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Predicting Marital Instability from Spouse and Observer Reports of Marital Interaction

Article excerpt

This prospective study examines the relationship between the quality of marital interaction, both as perceived by spouses and as reported by outside observers, and marital instability and divorce in a sample of 436 long-time married couples from the rural Midwest. Discriminant function analysis showed that spousal hostility, net of warmth, predicted with 80% accuracy which couples would divorce or not divorce within a year and with 88% accuracy which couples would be in the two most extreme marital groups (most stable and least stable). In a structural equation model with latent constucts, we found that observer reports of behavioral interactions are related to marital instability both directly and indirectly through partners' perceptions of one another's behaviors.

Why do some marriages last until the death of one spouse, whereas others end in divorce? Social scientists now estimate that between one half and two thirds of all first marriages will end in divorce, and the rate of failure for second marriages is even higher (Cherlin, 1992; Martin & Bumpass, 1989). These statistics have particular importance in light of empirical findings that divorced people experience poorer physical and mental health than the married, the never-married, or the widowed (Bloom, Asher, & White, 1978; Hu & Goldman, 1990; Stack & Wasserman, 1993). Moreover, children with divorced parents have more conduct problems, are poorer achievers in school, have poorer relationships with their parents in adulthood, and are more likely to go through divorce themselves (Cooney, 1994; Ellison, 1983; Glen & Kramer, 1985; Keith & Finlay, 1988).

Despite the prevalence of divorce and its strong association with poorer physical and mental well-being, we still know relatively little about why some marriages fail. In the past 20 years, a growing body of research has focused on certain behavioral interaction processes expected to influence marriage (e.g., Gottman, 1979; Margolin & Wampold, 1981). These studies were originally motivated by a clinical interest in the day-to-day behaviors that contribute to marital distress (Weiss & Heyman, 1990). More recent studies have used reports from outside observers in addition to husbands and wives to investigate the relationship between negative or positive affect in marital interaction and marital quality or instability (e.g., Conger, Ge, & Lorenz, 1994; Gottman, 1994; Matthews, Conger, & Wickrama, 1996). However, almost all studies of divorce have focused on younger couples who have been married for relatively short periods of time. As yet, we know little about the factors that lead to divorce among couples married for a decade or more (Booth, Johnson, White, & Edwards, 1986).

Concurrent with the development of this field of marital research, there has been a growing recognition that the behaviors that husbands and wives display toward each other are distinguishable from the cognitions that spouses may have about such interactions, and thus behaviors and cognitions need to be examined separately in marital research (Fincham, Bradbury, & Scott, 1990; Gottman, 1993). In addition, although most research on divorce has been cross-sectional, the increasing availability of longitudinal data now allows researchers to investigate the relationship trajectories that may exacerbate risk for marital instability (Conger et al., 1994; Gottman, 1994). Most recently, Gottman (1994) has claimed an ability to predict with a high degree of accuracy which couples will remain married and which will divorce. In this study, we specifically examine how dimensions of hostility and warmth in marital interaction, both as perceived by spouses and as rated by trained observers, influence marital instability.


Observational Studies of Marital Interactions

Since the mid-1970s, researchers have used observational studies to examine processes of marital interaction. …

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