Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

A Comparison of High- and Low-Distress Marriages That End in Divorce

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

A Comparison of High- and Low-Distress Marriages That End in Divorce

Article excerpt

We used data from Waves 1 and 2 of the National Survey of Families and Households to study high- and low-distress marriages that end in divorce. A cluster analysis of 509 couples who divorced between waves revealed that about half were in high-distress relationships and the rest in low-distress relationships. These 2 groups were not artifacts of the timing of the interview or of measurement error. Irrespective of marital quality, couples who divorced shared many risk characteristics, such as having divorced parents. Individuals in high-distress marriages reported increases in happiness fol- lowing divorce, whereas those in low-distress marriages reported declines in happiness. These results suggest two basic motivations to divorce: poor relationship quality and a weak commitment to marriage.

Key Words: cluster analysis, commitment, divorce, marital quality.

Why do married couples get divorced? Many people assume that a trajectory of relationship deterioration typically underlies this decision. According to this scenario, couples disagree and fight frequently, partners become increasingly disengaged from one another emotionally, and each partner's marital happiness declines. Eventually, one or both partners decide that the marriage has eroded to the point where it cannot be salvaged. As a result, one partner, often with the consent of the other, files for marital dissolution.

Although this description undoubtedly describes the trajectories of some marriages that end in divorce, it is not the only pattern. In a series of publications, Amato, Loomis, and Booth (1995); Amato and Booth (1997); Booth and Amato (2001); and Amato (2002) presented evidence that many couples do not experience high levels of discord and marital unhappiness prior to divorce. Contrary to the pattern described above, these couples appear to end their unions for reasons that only partly reflect the quality of the marriage.

Studies that support this conclusion have relied on a single data set: the Marital Instability Over the Life Course Study (Booth, Amato, & Johnson, 1998). In this article, we explore this issue with a different data set: Waves I and ? of the National Survey of Families and Households. Our study has several goals. We use longitudinal data to estimate the percentage of couples who have high- and low-distress relationships prior to divorce. We use several methods (described below) to determine whether these two groups may be methodological artifacts. We then use data from Wave I (when all couples were married) to see how couples in high- and low-distress marriages that end in divorce differ from couples who remain together, as well as how these two types of unstable marriages differ from each other. Finally, we consider the possibility that individuals in high-distress marriages experience improvements in subjective well-being following divorce, whereas those in low-distress marriages experience declines in subjective well-being. Although our study is largely exploratory, we develop some theoretical ideas that make the distinction between the two types of divorce plausible.


Scholars have frequently applied social exchange theory to understand why relationships form, continue, and dissolve (Homans, 1950; Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). Levinger's (1965, 1976) commonly applied theory of divorce is based on this theoretical tradition. This theory contains three basic components: attractions, barriers, and alternatives. First, attraction to a spouse is proportional to the rewards received from the relationship minus the costs involved in the relationship. Rewards include positive aspects of the relationship, such as love, sex, companionship, emotional support, and everyday assistance. Costs reflect negative aspects of the relationship, such as dealing with verbal or physical aggression. In general, people are motivated to remain in marriages when relationship rewards are high and relationship costs low. …

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