Academic journal article Family Relations

Strengthening Marriages and Preventing Divorce: New Directions in Prevention Research

Academic journal article Family Relations

Strengthening Marriages and Preventing Divorce: New Directions in Prevention Research

Article excerpt

Despite the fact that marital divorce rates have decreased throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, couples marrying for the first time continue to face a 50% chance of divorce during their lifetime (National Center for Health Statistics [NCHS], in press). Many other couples never divorce but remain in distressed and/or abusive relationships (Notarius & Markman, 1993). The good news is that there is more information available now than ever before to help couples take meaningful steps to prevent divorce and preserve meaningful relationships.

The aims of this article are to provide an outline of our approach to preventing marital distress and divorce, to summarize the results from our longitudinal research on prevention, and to describe some of our ongoing efforts to test and disseminate our prevention approach with new populations of couples (i.e., couples in the transition to marriage and transition to parenthood stages). Along the way, we will also highlight key dilemmas we and others face in the dissemination of empirically tested interventions beyond the walls of university research settings.


Destructive Relationship Conflict: A Generic Risk Factor

A recent National Institute of Mental Health report on prevention argues that marital distress and, in particular, destructive marital conflict are major generic risk factors for many forms of dysfunction and psychopathology (Coie et al., 1993). For example, marital and/or family discord has been linked to higher rates of depression in adults (especially women; Coyne, Kahn, & Gotlib, 1987) and a variety of negative outcomes for children, including conduct disorders (Fincham, Grych, & Osborne, 1993), internalizing problems (e.g., anxiety, depression), and juvenile delinquency (Patterson, Reid, & Dishion, 1992). Furthermore, the destructive effects of marital distress on physical health (e.g., Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 1993) and worker productivity (e.g., Markman, Forthofer, Cox, Stanley, & Kessler, 1994) are now being documented.

Evidence from several longitudinal studies of couples suggests that communication problems and destructive marital conflict are among leading risk factors for future divorce and marital distress (e.g., Gottman, 1994; Markman & Hahlweg, 1993). Furthermore, destructive conflict appears to be the most potent mechanism through which the effects of divorce and marital distress are transmitted to spouses and children (Cowan & Cowan, 1992, 1995; Fisher & Fagot, 1993; Grych & Fincham, 1990; Howes & Markman, 1389; Volling & Belsky, 1992). Based on many studies in the field, we have identified patterns of destructive arguing (e.g., escalation, invalidation, withdrawal, pursuit-withdrawal, and negative interpretations) that place couples--and, therefore, families--at risk for a host of problems in the future (Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg, 1994).

Longitudinal studies have found that, over time, these destructive patterns (and those similar to them) undermine marital happiness through the active erosion of love, sexual attraction, friendship, trust, and commitment (Gottman, 1993; Markman & Hahlweg, 1993). These positive elements of relationships--the reasons people want to be together--do not naturally diminish over time, but are actively eroded by destructive conflict patterns (Notarius & Markman, 1993).

Although dysfunctional communication and conflict patterns are recognizable in premarital interaction (Markman, 1981), they become more difficult to modify once they become established in the interactional styles of couples (Raush, Barry, Hertel, & Swain, 1974). Despite the difficulties inherent in trying to change set patterns, the primary method of helping couples is to treat relationship problems after they have become severe enough for the couple to seek therapy, usually after there have been negative effects on spouses and children (Hahlweg & Markman, 1988). …

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