Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Patterns of Change in Marital Satisfaction over the Newlywed Years

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Patterns of Change in Marital Satisfaction over the Newlywed Years

Article excerpt

Although marital satisfaction starts high and declines for the average newlywed, some spouses may follow qualitatively distinct trajectories. Using 8 self-reports of satisfaction collected over 4 years from 464 newlywed spouses, we identified 5 trajectory groups, including patterns defined by high intercepts and no declines in satisfaction, moderate intercepts and minimal declines, and low intercepts and substantial declines. The groups varied systematically in their 4- and 10-year divorce rates, and wives tended to follow more satisfying trajectories than their husbands. Personality traits, stress, aggression, and communication behaviors assessed shortly after marriage discriminated among groups in expected directions. We conclude by outlining theoretical and practical implications of identifying distinct and predictable patterns of change in relationship satisfaction.

Key Words: communication, divorce, gender, longitudinal, marital satisfaction, marriage and close relationships.

Perhaps the most robust finding in the marital literature is the honeymoon-is-over effect (Kurdek, 1998) or the "typical honeymoon then years of blandness" pattern (Aron, Norman, Aron, & Lewandowski, 2002, p. 182), whereby high initial levels of satisfaction inexorably decline as a marriage matures. Although there is some debate over whether these changes are primarily linear or nonlinear in form, there is little dispute that marriages on average are viewed as less fulfilling as time passes (e.g., Kurdek, 1998; VanLaningham, Johnson, & Amato, 2001). But does this pattern characterize change in satisfaction for the majority of spouses as they negotiate the early years of marriage? Or are there subgroups of newlyweds who are particularly vulnerable to rapid declines in satisfaction and others who do not decline much at all? If there is a subset of high-risk newlyweds, what factors distinguish them from other newlyweds? This article aims to answer those questions.

Recent cross-sectional findings indicate that marital distress may be categorical in nature (Whisman, Beach, & Snyder, 2008), and longitudinal studies have further suggested that qualitatively distinct patterns of change in satisfaction can be identified. A study of new parents assessed love, conflict, ambivalence, and communication in the last trimester of pregnancy and again when the child was 3, 9, and 36 months old (Belsky & Rovine, 1 990). In contrast to the sample's mean pattern of decline, analysis of individual curves revealed patterns of accelerated decline, linear decline, no change, and modest positive increase; the last two groups comprised about half of the sample. Distinct patterns of change in marital functioning from the 5th to the 10th year of marriage have also been examined (Belsky & Hsieh, 1998), with many couples maintaining a high level of marital functioning over time. Heterogeneity in change patterns is evident over longer spans as well: 20-year patterns of marital happiness among individuals who had been married more than 12 years on average at study onset revealed several subgroups, including a group with low marital happiness initially and large declines and a group that maintained high marital happiness over time (Kamp Dush, Taylor, & Kroeger, 2008).

These studies do not point to any consistent subgroups of change patterns, and because they focused on established couples, they bear only indirectly on the "typical honeymoon then years of blandness" effect. Nevertheless, the studies suggest that the mean pattern of decline subsumes subgroups of spouses distinguished by different change patterns. Clarifying and distinguishing further among these subgroups could have important implications for theories of marital change. For example, identifying categorically distinct types of change patterns would invoke different explanatory frameworks than would identifying patterns that differ only in degree. Moreover, if one or two qualitatively distinct groups of spouses were at particularly high risk for eventual relationship problems, then it would be efficient to direct intervention resources to those individuals rather than to newlyweds with more favorable risk profiles. …

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