Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Who Are the Marital Experts?

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Who Are the Marital Experts?

Article excerpt

We asked whether professional training or personal experience with marriage predicted accuracy in judging (a) marital satisfaction and (b) marital stability. Nine groups of participants viewed 3-minute videotaped conversations of 10 married couples and rated each on level of marital satisfaction and whether they were likely to divorce in the future. Group differences were found in accuracy of marital satisfaction judgments. Those for whom marriage held high personal meaning (satisfied and dissatisfied long-term marriages, newlyweds, recent divorce(eJs), as rated by a panel of judges, were more accurate than those with professional training (pastoral counselors, clinical psychology graduate students, marital therapists, marital researchers). Neither professional training nor personal experience was associated with the ability to predict divorce.

Key Words: behavioral cues, divorce, judgment accuracy, marital prediction, marriage, social perception.

Over the past four decades, considerable research has been directed toward two qualities of marriage: (a) marital satisfaction-finding characteristics that distinguish satisfied marriages from dissatisfied marriages-and (b) marital stability-- finding characteristics that distinguish couples who stay together from those who divorce. Although these two qualities often go hand in hand, they sometimes do not. For example, we all know of marriages in which the spouses are quite unhappy but yet they stay together over the years. Most of the early research on marital satisfaction and marital stability was done by sociologists who made use of well-constructed self-report instruments to study marriage and predict its course. A major change came in the 1970s, when behavioral observation was introduced into marital research (e.g., Raush, Barry, Hertel, & Swain, 1974). With this change, investigators could examine marital interaction and try to find behavioral signs that were related to marital quality and marital stability. Behavioral observation research, which most often made use of quite laborious and time-consuming coding of marital interactive behavior, identified a number of potent predictors of both marital satisfaction and marital stability that were often superior in predictive power to those derived from self-report measures (see Gottman, 1998, for a review). More recently, researchers in the social-- cognition tradition identified qualities of marital cognitions and attributions that were also associated with marital satisfaction and stability (Fincham & Bradbury, 1991).

All of these approaches to predicting marital satisfaction and stability are based on the application of highly refined measurement techniques developed by marital researchers and applied in well-controlled studies. People in everyday social settings make similar informal assessments of couples they encounter-including judgments about whether couples seem happy together and whether relationships are likely to last. These real world judgments are usually made on the basis of brief observations of marital interaction without the aid of questionnaires, systematic behavioral coding, or assessment of marital attributions, and they are often stated with considerable authority and confidence. Yet we rarely get definitive feedback about whether such judgments are accurate. For example, our judgments of couples' marital satisfaction are typically not checked against the couples' own feelings in this regard and, assuming we remembered them, we would not know whether our judgments of marital stability are accurate until many years had passed.

If we grant that laypeople regularly make judgments about marriages, it raises the following question: On what are these judgments based? Several studies have examined the use of actual and perceived behavioral cues in making judgments about married couples. Kleinke, Meeker, and La Fong (1974) found that untrained judges made more positive ratings of couples who in fact gazed at and touched one another than they did for nongazing and nontouching couples. …

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