Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Why Stay Married? Rewards, Barriers, and Marital Stability

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Why Stay Married? Rewards, Barriers, and Marital Stability

Article excerpt

This paper describes people's open-ended, personal accounts of why they stay married. Most people perceived the cohesiveness of their marriages in terms of rewards and barriers, and few people referred to a lack of good alternatives. People who reported barriers only tended to be relatively unhappy with their marriages and were more likely than other individuals to be thinking about divorce. People who reported barriers only, compared with people who reported rewards only, were more likely to divorce during the next 14 years. This association was significant even after controlling for marital happiness and divorce proneness.

Key Words: barriers, divorce, marital cohesion, marital happiness, rewards.

Over the past few decades, numerous researchers have used the constructs of rewards, barriers, and alternatives to study marital cohesion. Rewards involve the positive outcomes associated with being in a relationship, barriers encompass psychological forces that restrain people from leaving relationships, and alternatives reflect the attractiveness of potential partners other than one's spouse (as well as the attractiveness of having no partner at all). Many researchers assume that people's perceptions of rewards, barriers, and alternatives determine whether a marriage ends in divorce (Heaton & Albrecht, 1991; Levinger, 1965, 1976; White & Booth, 1991).

To assess the extent to which these factors operate in marriages, researchers usually define certain variables as rewards (such as satisfaction with the spouse as a companion or with the sexual relationship) and other variables as barriers (such as being religious or having children). Researchers then use these variables to predict whether people's marriages end in dissolution. Because these rewards and barriers are defined in an a priori fashion, however, it is not clear whether the rewards and barriers studied by researchers are the most salient ones for individual husbands and wives. Although rarely used, another approach is to ask open-ended questions about why people remain in their marriages. This method has the advantage of allowing individuals to describe, in their own words, the most important factors that maintain the cohesiveness of their unions.

The present study used national, longitudinal data to investigate people's open-ended responses to the question, "What are the most important factors keeping your marriage together?" After coding these responses into a set of categories reflecting rewards, barriers, and alternatives, we examined the links between these accounts and the odds of divorcing in subsequent years. Our goal was to see if people's open-ended reports increase our ability to predict divorce, net of the marital quality scales typically used by researchers (e.g., scales of marital happiness and divorce proneness). A related goal was to compare people's open-ended reports of barriers with people's responses to a series of fixed-choice questions about the importance of specific (and largely objective) barriers in keeping their marriages together. As we show below, people who reported that specific barriers were important tended to be in relatively stable marriages. In contrast, our open-ended question revealed that individuals who viewed their relationships as being maintained primarily by barriers (as opposed to rewards) tended to be in marriages that were relatively unstable. We argue that barriers can reflect either greater marital stability or greater marital instability, depending on how they are conceptualized and operationalized.


Rewards, barriers, and alternatives are central constructs in marital cohesion frameworks (Johnson, Caughlin, & Huston, 1999; Levinger, 1965, 1976; Rusbult, 1983). Levinger, for example, drew on exchange theory to explain why some marriages remain intact and other marriages end in divorce. According to Levinger, attraction to a spouse is proportional to the rewards received from the relationship minus the costs involved in the relationship. …

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