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research articles on marriage

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Happy Marriage, Happy Life? Marital Quality and Subjective Well-Being in Later Life

Vicki a. freedman.

* Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, 426 Thompson St., Ann Arbor, MI 48104

Jennifer C. Cornman

** Jennifer Cornman Consulting, 113 Chapin Pl., Granville, OH 43023

Norbert Schwarz

*** Department of Psychology, University of Southern California, 3620 S. McClintock Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90089-1061

The authors examined associations between marital quality and both general life satisfaction and experienced (momentary) well-being among older husbands and wives, the relative importance of own versus spouse’s marital appraisals for well-being, and the extent to which the association between own marital appraisals and well-being is moderated by spouse’s appraisals. Data are from the 2009 Disability and Use of Time daily diary supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics ( N = 722). One’s own marital satisfaction is a sizable and significant correlate of life satisfaction and momentary happiness; associations do not differ significantly by gender. The authors did not find a significant association between spouse’s marital appraisals and own well-being. However, the association between husband’s marital quality and life satisfaction is buoyed when his wife also reports a happy marriage, yet flattened when his wife reports low marital quality. Implications for understanding marital dynamics and well-being in later life are discussed.

The protective effects of marriage for physical and emotional well-being are widely documented ( Carr & Springer, 2010 ). However, recent research shows that these effects are conditional upon the quality of the marriage; problematic marriages take an emotional toll, whereas high-quality marriages provide benefits, especially for women ( Proulx, Helms, & Buehler, 2007 ) and older adults ( Umberson, Williams, Powers, Liu, & Needham, 2006 ). Although the positive association between marital quality and well-being is well established, several important issues remain unexplored. First, most such studies have focused on negative aspects of psychological functioning, especially depressive symptoms ( Bookwala, 2012 ). Studies that have focused on positive aspects of well-being typically have used decontextualized and general life satisfaction measures ( Whisman, Uebelacker, Tolejko, Chatav, & Meckelvie, 2006 ) rather than momentary measures of positive mood that may be less susceptible to response bias.

Second, most studies have focused on only one spouse’s marital appraisals and have not considered that both own and spouse’s appraisals may contribute independently to well-being (i.e., actor vs. partner effects; Cook & Kenney, 2005 ). Although mounting research suggests that one spouse’s marital (dis)satisfaction may affect the other partner’s well-being, such studies typically have focused on young or midlife persons ( Beach, Katz, Kim, & Brody, 2003 ; Whisman, Uebelacker, & Weinstock, 2004 ). Third, we know of no studies that have explored the combined influences of both partners’ marital appraisals on well-being. Older spouses’ marital appraisals are correlated only modestly ( r < .50 in the present study; see also Bulanda, 2011 ; Carr & Boerner, 2009 ; Cohen, Geron, & Farchi, 2009 ); thus, it is plausible that spouses’ appraisals as well as convergences (or divergences) therein may have independent associations with well-being. The protective effects of marital satisfaction on emotional well-being may be amplified when one’s spouse also is satisfied with the marriage, whereas the association may be dampened or even reversed when one’s partner is dissatisfied. An exploration of the multiplicative influences of “his” and “her” marital assessments on one’s well-being will shed light on complex associations between marital dynamics and emotional well-being in later life.

Thus, in this study we explored the distinctive ways that both own and spouse’s marital quality appraisals are associated with two aspects of older adults’ subjective well-being: (a) evaluations of one’s life in general (i.e., global life satisfaction) and (b) how one experiences life moment to moment (i.e., happiness during randomly sampled activities on the day prior to interview). Data were from the 2009 Disability and Use of Time (DUST) supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which includes 24-hour time diaries capturing activities and emotions experienced on the previous day. Using these data obtained from older married couples, we explored the following four areas: (a) associations between marital quality and well-being for husbands and wives; (b) differences in how own (“actor”) and spouse’s (“partner”) marital appraisals are associated with well-being; (c) the extent to which associations between marital quality appraisals and well-being persist net of demographic, health, socioeconomic status, and characteristics of the target day (e.g., day of week, activity); and (d) the extent to which the associations between one’s own marital appraisals and well-being are moderated by a spouse’s appraisals.

Understanding later life marriage is an important pursuit given current demographic trends. The proportion of adults age 65 and older is projected to increase, from 13% in 2010 to nearly 20% in 2030 ( Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, 2012 ). Marital quality has far-reaching implications for the health and well-being of older adults; it is a well-documented buffer against the health-depleting effects of later life stressors such as caregiving ( Bookwala, 2012 ), and is a critical resource as couples manage difficult decisions regarding their end-of-life health care ( Carr, Boerner, & Moorman, 2013 ).

Marital Quality and Subjective Well-Being Among Older Adults

Marital quality is positively associated with subjective well-being, and this association is typically stronger among women than men ( Bookwala, 2012 ; Jackson, Miller, Oka, & Henry, 2014 ; Proulx et al., 2007 ; Whisman, 2001 ). However, most studies have examined newlyweds, young couples, or those with children living in the home ( Bookwala, 2012 ; Whisman, 2001 ). Therefore, the strong association between marital quality and well-being among women relative to men may reflect distinctive aspects of marital roles and relations in young and mid-adulthood. Feminist writings dating back to Jesse Bernard ( 1972 ) suggest that marriage and intimate relationships are more central to women’s identities, and more consequential for their overall well-being relative to men, because women typically “specialize” in emotion work and nurturing roles such as that of spouse or parent, whereas their husbands specialize in paid employment outside the home ( Loscocco & Walzer, 2013 ). Women may feel responsible for resolving marital problems and ensuring that the couple maintains a good marriage for the sake of the children ( Beach et al., 2003 ; Davila, Karney, Hall, & Bradbury, 2003 ; Dehle & Weiss, 1998 ). Some scholars argue further that women traditionally have had less power and status in marriage than men and thus have a greater emotional investment in maintaining a healthy relationship ( Bulanda, 2011 ).

Among older adults, the gendered roles and relations established earlier in the life course may shift or converge, creating a context in which the association between marital satisfaction and well-being is similar for husbands and wives. First, as spouses age, their social networks beyond the marital dyad may change such that marriage becomes an equally salient source of well-being for both men and women. As they age, older men (and women, to a lesser extent) exit full-time employment, reduce social contact with former colleagues, and increase interactions with their spouse ( Kulik, 2002 ). Contact with friends and siblings also may decline as some die, whereas others may experience health declines or caregiving duties that limit their social engagement ( Dykstra & Gierveld, 2004 ). Social networks also may contract because of conscious efforts on the part of older adults. As older adults’ future time horizons become more limited, they may consciously limit their social networks and focus on a small subset of their closest relationships ( Carstensen, 1991 ). As such, close ties with a spouse may be particularly salient to both older husbands’ and wives’ overall well-being ( Lang, 2001 ).

Second, developmental and role changes over the life course may contribute to a convergence in the salience of marital quality for husbands’ and wives’ well-being. Theoretical writings propose that a gendered “role crossover” occurs at midlife and later, whereby men become more oriented toward family and affiliation and less oriented toward power and agency, especially after retiring and leaving full-time employment. Older women, by contrast, may place an increased emphasis on agency and self-fulfillment, and their identities and well-being become less closely tied to their relationships with others ( Loscocco & Walzer, 2013 ). Thus, the relative importance of agency versus affiliation for men and women may converge in later life.

These psychological shifts are closely tied to shifts in social roles; when older men are retired and women’s daily care of dependent children has subsided, spouses typically experience greater role equity ( Hagedoorn et al., 2006 ; Kulik, 2002 ). Whereas in younger couples wives may take responsibility for and solve marital problems, as long-term marriages persist men may “catch up” and may feel equally responsible for and become equally invested in the marital relationship, especially as paid work obligations absorb less of their time ( Beach et al., 2003 ). Consistent with the assumption that the importance of marriage to husbands’ and wives’ overall well-being may converge in later life, several small, nonrepresentative studies of married older adults in the United States have found no gender differences in the association between marital quality and well-being ( Quirouette & Pushkar-Gold, 1992 ; Whisman et al., 2006 ). Our first aim was to assess gender-specific associations between marital quality and well-being among a nationally representative sample of older spouses; we expected that the magnitude and direction of these associations will be similar for men and women.

Marital Quality and Global Versus Experienced Subjective Well-Being

Most research on the association between marital quality and subjective well-being has focused on negative outcomes, typically, depressive symptoms ( Bookwala, 2012 ; Fincham, Beach, Harold, & Osborne, 1997 ; Whisman et al., 2004 ). Ryff and Singer ( 1998 ) argued for the value of focusing on positive outcomes also. Older persons who score very low on indicators of positive psychological functioning, such as life satisfaction or happiness, may be at an elevated risk of major depression if confronted with additional life stressors. By contrast, emotional well-being is a resource on which older adults may draw as they cope with aging-related stressors, including physical declines, sensory impairment, and caregiving challenges ( Bookwala, 2012 ). Finally, older adults are believed to have a cognitive bias whereby they attend to positive and avoid or understate negative experiences, sentiments, and recollections ( Charles, Mather & Carstensen, 2003 ). Therefore, indicators of positive aspects of well-being may offer a more accurate portrayal of older adults’ overall psychological health.

An increasing amount of research is exploring associations between marital quality and positive psychological outcomes, yet most studies thus far have focused on general indicators such as global life satisfaction ( Cohen et al., 2009 ; Glenn & Weaver, 1981 ). Scholars of subjective well-being have called for heightened attention to an alternative measure: experienced well-being , or the moment-to-moment reports of how one is feeling ( Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz, & Stone, 2006 ). Some researchers consider these measures an improvement over global, decontextualized measures such as life satisfaction, which may be influenced by errors in recollection, recall bias, and other cognitive processing bias errors ( Schwarz & Strack, 1999 ).

Thus, we focused on both global and momentary measures of well-being. Global life satisfaction is a relatively stable orientation and is not affected by transient mood. It captures how people evaluate their lives relative to some standard, such as their expectation for how life should be ( Schwarz & Strack, 1999 ). By contrast, momentary measures of experienced well-being are assessments of lives as individuals live them. The two measures are highly correlated, yet life satisfaction is more responsive to enduring markers of success (e.g., education), whereas experienced well-being is more responsive to contemporaneous activities and immediate circumstances ( Kahneman et al., 2006 ). It is plausible that each could relate differently to marital quality ( George, 2010 ); for example, frequent arguments with one’s spouse, or a spouse’s urgings to take one’s medications, might cause a momentary spike in unhappiness but may also provide a feeling of being cared for, which may enhance one’s overall satisfaction. We evaluated the associations between men’s and women’s marital quality and two aspects of well-being: (a) life satisfaction and (b) momentary happiness.

His and Hers Marital Quality Appraisals: Evaluating Actor and Partner Effects

To date, most studies of the implications of later life marriage have focused on one individual within the marital dyad, “despite the importance of relationship interdependencies … to the study of aging” ( Windsor, Ryan, & Smith, 2009 , p. 586). This limitation is due in part to traditional models of data collection in which one person answers survey questions on his or her perceived relationship quality and well-being ( Carr & Springer, 2010 ). However, husbands and wives do not necessarily view their marriages in similar ways; marital quality assessments are typically correlated only modestly ( r < .50), even in long-term relationships ( Bulanda, 2011 ; Carr & Boerner, 2009 ; Cohen et al., 2009 ). As a consequence, few studies have investigated whether older adults’ subjective well-being is a function of one’s own marital appraisals, one’s spouse’s appraisal, or a product of the two.

Over the past decade, studies have begun to explore actor–partner effects, or the extent to which one individual’s experiences or traits affect other members of one’s social network ( Cook & Kenny, 2005 ). For example, if one partner is dissatisfied with the marriage, he or she could act negatively toward the spouse by criticizing or withdrawing affection. Conversely, happily married persons may be motivated to provide support and encouragement to their partner, thereby enhancing their partner’s happiness and well-being. Thus, one partner’s marital (dis)satisfaction may be linked to the emotional well-being of the other.

To date, studies of the marital dyad have yielded inconclusive findings. Several have found that a spouse’s physical and emotional health are strongly associated with one’s own well-being (see Bookwala, 2012 , for a review), yet comparable patterns have not been detected with regard to marital quality and well-being. A study of married parents of teenage children found that one partner’s marital appraisals affected the other spouse’s depressive symptoms ( Beach et al., 2003 ), and a study of newlywed couples found no evidence of partner effects ( Fincham et al., 1997 ). These results suggest that partner effects may become evident only in longer term marriages, in which the partners are knowledgeable about and sensitive to fluctuations in one another’s attitudes and feelings. To evaluate whether partner effects are evident in long-term marriages among older adults, we took advantage of the couple-based design of the Disability and Use of Time (DUST) daily diary supplement ( Freedman & Cornman, 2012 ) to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID; Hill, 1992 ) and evaluated whether spousal marital appraisals are associated with one’s subjective well-being, independent of one’s own marital appraisals.

The Multiplicative Effects of His and Her Appraisals

Although subjective well-being may respond directly and independently to a spouse’s marital happiness, a straightforward assessment of actor and partner effects does not necessarily capture the complex interactions between the two. A mounting body of research, typically laboratory based studies, documents the processes through which husbands and wives independently respond to conflicts or joys in marriage and the reactions that one partner’s response elicits from the other. These dynamic processes of action and reaction may have powerful implications for overall well-being. For example, studies of dyadic coping and communication reveal the varied ways that couples, especially older couples managing health problems, might navigate such challenges ( Holley, Haase, & Levenson, 2013 ; Revenson, Kayser, & Bodenmann, 2005 ). Such examples provide a foundation for investigating statistical interactions between own and spouse’s marital appraisals and their associations with married persons’ overall well-being.

We know of no studies that have explored interactive effects of own and spouse’s marital appraisals on one’s own well-being. However, we speculate that the protective effects of one’s own marital satisfaction may be buoyed by a spouse’s positive marital appraisal, whereas the harmful effects of one’s own negative appraisal may be amplified when one’s spouse also offers a negative appraisal. We expected to find stronger evidence of moderation effects among husbands than wives, given well-documented gender differences in marital interactions, whereby women play a more active role in communicating, instigating change in a partner’s behavior, and conveying concerns about the marital relationship ( Bloch, Haase, & Levenson, 2014 ). By contrast, men tend to take a more passive or silent approach to addressing marital issues, and therefore their feelings toward the marriage may not necessarily be transmitted to their spouse and may not interact with their wives’ marital assessments to affect wives’ overall well-being ( Heavey, Layne, & Christensen, 1993 ). Given this, women’s marital interactions may elicit a stronger reaction from their husbands than vice versa, carrying consequences for husbands’ well-being. To address these questions, we evaluated two-way interaction terms of each partner’s appraisal on one’s subjective well-being.

Other Influences on Marital Quality and Well-Being

We evaluated the extent to which associations between marital quality and well-being persist when we controlled for potential demographic and socioeconomic confounds, including age ( Mroczek & Spiro, 2005 ; Proulx et al., 2007 ), race ( Broman, 2005 ; Krause, 1993 ), own and spouse’s physical health ( Butterworth & Rodgers, 2006 ; Kaufman & Taniguchi, 2006 ), socioeconomic status ( White & Rogers, 2000 ), marital duration ( Umberson et al., 2006 ), whether one is in a first or higher order marriage ( Barrett, 2000 ; Mirecki, Chou, Elliott, & Schneider, 2013 ), and parental status ( Umberson, Pudrovska, & Reczek, 2010 ). We also controlled for characteristics of the specific activities to which one was referring when describing one’s mood on the study day.

Our analyses are based on data from the DUST supplement to the 2009 PSID, a national panel study of a representative sample of families in the United States. The original 1968 PSID sample included 18,000 individuals in approximately 5,000 families. All respondents from the original sample and anyone born to or adopted by one of these families have been followed in the study. The PSID sample is a self-sustaining one; it increases as children leave their parents’ households and form new households. Adult children are then tracked by the study investigators; the design produces a nationally representative cross-section of families each year ( McGonagle & Schoeni, 2006 ). Interviews were conducted annually between 1968 and 1997 and biennially thereafter. Reinterview rates for original sample members have been consistently 98% per year (96% over 2 years), and the sample of families now exceeds 8,000. In 2009, the response rate for the PSID (including new split-off households) was 94.3%.

DUST sampled couples in the 2009 PSID in which both spouses were at least 50 years old and at least one spouse was at least 60 years old as of December 31, 2008. The vast majority of married persons in the PSID age 60 and older have spouses who are age 50 and older; however, the sample does not represent the small fraction (~5%) of couples in which one spouse is 60 or older and the other under 50. To enhance opportunities for studying disability, couples in which one or both spouses reported a health limitation during the 2009 core interview were oversampled, and strata were further divided by the husband’s age (<70, 70+).

The DUST instrument, which was administered by telephone within a few months after the 2009 core PSID interview, was designed as a 30- to 40-minute diary. DUST was paired during the first of two interviews with a 15- to 20-minute supplemental questionnaire that included global well-being, functioning, marital quality, and stylized time use questions. To obtain a balanced sample of days, couples were systematically assigned interview days that would yield one weekday and one weekend day diary; thus, up to four daily diaries could be completed per couple. Husbands and wives were interviewed separately but on the same date. The diary asked about all activities on the previous day, beginning at 4:00 a.m. and continuing until 4:00 a.m. the day of interview. Respondents also were asked detailed questions about how they felt while doing up to three randomly selected activities (for details, see Freedman & Cornman, 2012 ); this approach is based on the validated Day Reconstruction Method developed to measure momentary well-being ( Kahneman et al., 2006 ). DUST assessed momentary well-being for up to three activities to minimize subject fatigue and boredom; this sampling procedure is consistent with those of other national daily diary studies ( Iida, Shrout, Laurenceau, & Bolger, 2012 ). Comparisons of momentary measures collected through 24-hour diary format with real-time experience sampling methods suggest very good agreement ( Dockray et al., 2010 ).

Of the 543 eligible couples sampled for DUST, at least one diary was completed for 394 couples, yielding a response rate of 73%. About 4% of respondents ( n = 33) had a spouse who could not participate because of a permanent health condition (e.g., memory loss). For these couples, diaries were collected from the spouse without a health condition. Because analyses focus on own and spouse’s reports of marital quality, our analytic sample was limited to couples for whom we had both spouses’ reports of marital quality ( n = 361). For analyses assessing momentary mood, we had 720 paired husband–wife diary days and 1,920 paired activities.

Dependent Variables

Subjective well-being.

Global satisfaction is assessed with the question, “Taking all things together, how satisfied are you with your life these days?” Response categories range from 0 ( not at all ) to 6 ( very ). This single item was administered at the beginning and end of the interview, yielding a correlation of .65. This is consistent with other studies detecting 1-hour test–retest reliabilities of.40 to .66 and same day test–retest reliabilities of .50 to .55 ( Krueger & Schkade, 2008 ). In the analyses presented here, we used the evaluation provided at the beginning of the interview, in order to avoid potential priming effects as a result of the interview content ( Strack, 1992 ). Momentary well-being refers to how happy a respondent was while doing reported activities on the study day. For the randomly selected activities from each diary, respondents reported how happy they were on a scale that ranged from 0 ( not at all happy ) to 6 ( very happy ).

Independent Variables

Marital quality.

Marital quality is derived from a subset of six items drawn from a standardized instrument reflecting both marital strain and support ( Whalen & Lachman, 2000 ). Respondents indicate how much: you can open up to your spouse if you need talk about your worries; your spouse appreciates you; your spouse argues with you (reverse coded); your spouse understands the way you feel about things; your spouse makes you feel tense (reverse coded); and your spouse gets on your nerves (reverse coded). Response categories range from 1 ( not at all ) to 4 ( a lot ). Responses are averaged so that higher values reflect more positive assessments. A confirmatory factor analysis showed that the six items form a single factor, with all loadings 0.53 or higher and a Cronbach’s alpha of .78. We also calculated two 3-item scales capturing positive (α = .71) and negative interactions (α = .71). Preliminary regression analyses revealed similar associations between own marital quality and well-being, regardless of the scale used, and models using the six-item scale had superior model fit. Thus, we use the single six-item scale in all analyses.

Control variables

All models were adjusted for selected respondent, spouse, and couple characteristics that may potentially confound the statistical association between marital quality and well-being. Respondent and spouse characteristics include age, self-rated health, and disability. Age categories are 50–69 (reference category), 70–79, and 80+ for men, and 50–59 (reference category), 60–69, and 70+ for women. The different cutpoints for husbands and wives reflect the fact that at least one member of the dyad had to be age 60 or older for study inclusion, and men tend to marry women younger than themselves. These categories also reflect the low number of men under age 60 and women over age 80 in the sample. We use categorical rather than continuous measures because the association between age and well-being is not linear; the association is positive between ages 60 and 75 and reverses thereafter ( Frijters & Beatton, 2012 ).

Order of marriage refers to whether one is in a remarriage; first marriage is the reference group. We also controlled for whether a respondent has any children (1 = yes, 0 = no). Self-rated health refers to whether one rates his or her own health as “excellent,” “very good,” “good,” “fair,” or “poor”; higher scores reflect poorer health. The five-level ordinal measure is preferable to a dichotomous indicator (e.g., poor/fair vs. other) because the latter conceals important gradations in later life health ( Finnas, Nyqvist, & Saarela, 2008 ). Disability refers to whether one has “serious difficulty” with hearing; seeing when wearing glasses; concentrating, remembering or making decisions because of a physical, mental or emotional condition; walking or climbing stairs; difficulty dressing or bathing; or doing errands alone, such as visiting a doctor’s office or shopping because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition. This measure was developed for the American Community Survey ( Weathers, 2005 ). Couple characteristics are total household income for 2008 (in quartiles) , total wealth for 2008 (in quartiles), and marital duration (in years).

For analyses predicting momentary happiness during daily activities, we also controlled for whether the activity was performed on a weekend (vs. weekday), at home (vs. elsewhere), with the spouse (vs. alone or with someone else), and which of 17 different activity categories best captures the nature of the randomly selected activity . Because the activity categories are mutually exclusive, we used traveling as the comparison group. A major strength of diary data is their detailed information on what people are doing when their momentary mood is assessed. In preliminary analyses, we contrasted regression models using the full set of 17 activities indicators versus aggregated categories to predict well-being. The distinctive effects of the 17 categories in our sex-specific models suggested that we would need to create different aggregated categories for each gender, and we wanted to keep the sex-specific models identical.

PSID has very low levels of missing data; across all the variables in the life satisfaction models, 21 (2.9%) or fewer cases were missing data on any one variable. For the additional variables that appear only in the happiness models, at most 24 (0.6%) activities have missing data on any one variable. All variables except one (education) have less than 1.5% missing data; we recoded the missing data to the modal category of the variable. Education had missing data for 2.9% of cases, thus we imputed the age-sex specific mode. Given the extremely low level of missing data (and hence likely trivial impact on variance estimates), we opted for mean imputation rather than more complex multiple-imputation techniques.

Analytic Plan

We first present weighted descriptive statistics for husbands and wives (see Table 1 ; see below for description of sampling weights). Next, we examine the unadjusted associations between both own and spouse’s marital quality appraisals and well-being (see Table 2 ). We then evaluate the extent to which these unadjusted associations persist net of all control variables (see Table 3 ). Finally, we estimate models that include an interaction term between husband and wife marital assessments (see Table 4 ). All analyses were performed in Stata 11.1.

Weighted Means (and Standard Deviations, in Parentheses) or Percentages for All Variables Used in the Analysis for Husbands and Wives in the Disability and Use of Time Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics

Note : We conducted t tests to evaluate statistically significant gender differences for continuous variables and a two-sample test of equality for categorical measures. The sample includes 361 married couples (i.e., 361 wives and 361 husbands), and reports are based on 1,920 activities for men and 1,920 activities for women.

Weighted Seemingly Unrelated Regression Models Predicting Life Satisfaction and Momentary Happiness, by Own and Spouse’s Marital Quality Appraisals, Among Husbands and Wives in the Disability and Use of Time Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics

Note: Unless otherwise noted table values are unstandardized regression coefficients. Numbers in parentheses are standard errors.

Weighted Seemingly Unrelated Regression Models Predicting Life Satisfaction and Momentary Happiness, by Own and Spouse’s Marital Quality Appraisals and Control Variables, Among Husbands and Wives in the Disability and Use of Time Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics

Note: Unless otherwise noted, table values are unstandardized regression coefficients. Numbers in parentheses are standard errors.

Weighted Seemingly Unrelated Regression Models Predicting Life Satisfaction and Momentary Happiness, by Interaction Terms of Own and Spouse’s Marital Quality, Among Husbands and Wives in the Disability and Use of Time Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics

Note: Models are adjusted for all covariates. Unless otherwise noted, table values are unstandardized regression coefficients. Numbers in parentheses are standard errors.

Associations were assessed using actor–partner interdependence models (APIM; Cook & Kenny, 2005 ), estimated using seemingly unrelated regression. In actor–partner interdependence models the effect of the respondent’s own characteristics are referred to as actor effects and the effect of the spouse’s characteristics are labeled partner effects . This approach accounts for the nonindependence of husbands’ and wives’ evaluations of well-being ( Cook & Kenny, 2005 ). The zero-order correlations between husbands’ and wives’ life satisfaction and momentary happiness scores were .27 and .17, respectively. We used an adjusted Wald test to test the equality of coefficients for husbands and wives.

Respondent-level descriptive statistics and regression models for life satisfaction are weighted to take into account differential subsampling of eligible PSID couples across strata and differential nonresponse by strata. Weights for activity-level descriptive statistics and models assessing experienced happiness are further adjusted for the overrepresentation of weekend days in the original sample, differential response rates by day of the week, and the fact that activities of longer duration have a greater chance of being randomly selected for the sample of activities for which momentary happiness is assessed. Standard errors in the regression models are adjusted for both survey design and the fact that multiple observations (e.g., activities) come from one respondent.

Descriptive Analyses

The data in Table 1 show that life satisfaction and experienced happiness do not differ significantly by gender. Both husbands and wives, on average, rated their general life satisfaction as 5.0 (out of 6). Men reported slightly more momentary happiness, but the gender difference only approached statistical significance (5.1 vs. 4.9, p = .09). Consistent with prior studies of marital quality, husbands rated their marriages slightly more positively than wives (3.3 vs. 3.1, p < .001). Wives were younger than husbands and less likely to report a disability (36.1 vs. 44.3%) yet also reported slightly poorer health; the latter two differences were not statistically significant. The average marital duration was 38.5 years ( SD = 14.6), and 28% of respondents were in a remarriage.

Characteristics of diary activities are presented at the bottom of Table 1 . Roughly one third of the randomly selected activities occurred on the weekend or were done with a spouse. Wives’ activities were more likely than husbands’ to take place at home (59 vs. 46%, p < .001). Consistent with literature on the gender typing of social roles, we found that husbands were more likely than wives to have been working for pay and traveling on the study day, whereas women were more likely to have prepared food, done household chores, or socialized.

Multivariate Analyses

Marital quality and well-being: unadjusted models.

The unadjusted coefficients of husbands’ and wives’ own (actor) and spouse’s (partner) marital quality appraisals on both own and spouse’s well-being are displayed in Table 2 . The left-hand panel of the table shows that each 1-point increase in one’s own marital quality appraisal was associated with a 0.52- and 0.72-point increase in husbands’ and wives’ life satisfaction scores, respectively ( p < .01). Similar patterns emerged for momentary happiness: Each 1-point increase in one’s own marital quality assessment was associated with a 0.49- and 0.40-point increase in one’s own happiness among husbands and wives, respectively ( p < .001). Coefficients did not differ significantly by gender. We found no evidence that partner appraisals were associated with own well-being. These weak associations are not likely due to multicollinearity; the zero-order correlation between spouses’ marital appraisals was modest ( r = .38).

Marital quality and well-being: Fully adjusted models

Table 3 presents coefficients for husbands’ and wives’ life satisfaction (left-hand panel) and momentary happiness (right-hand panel), adjusted for own and spouse’s marital quality assessment, and all control variables. Associations between own (actor) and spouse’s (partner) marital quality assessments with well-being change little when all control variables were adjusted. Husbands’ and wives’ own reports of marital quality were significantly associated with their own life satisfaction reports ( b s = 0.45 and 0.67, respectively, p < 0.01). Similar patterns hold for happy mood ( b s = 0.42 and 0.40 respectively, p < .001). These associations are large relative to other independent variables in the models; however, they do not differ significantly by gender.

Again, we did not find significant associations between partner appraisals and own well-being. However, we found evidence of another potential partner influence: Spouse’s self-rated health was inversely and significantly associated with wives’ (but not husbands’) life satisfaction ( b = –0.16, p < .01). Wives’ self-rated health was also associated with own life satisfaction ( b = –0.19, p < .01). By contrast, husbands’ self-assessed health (but not that of their wives) was associated with own life satisfaction ( b = –0.16, p < .05, for poor health) and experienced happiness ( b = –0.14, p < .01), and men with a disability reported lower life satisfaction ( b = –0.21, p < .01).

Moderation analysis: Interactive effects of husbands’ and wives’ marital appraisals

Our final aim was to assess whether the associations between one’s own marital appraisals and well-being are contingent on spouse’s marital appraisals. Coefficients for main and interaction effects for husbands’ and wives’ marital quality assessments, adjusted for controls, are presented in Table 4 . We found statistically significant interaction terms for husbands only; the association between men’s own marital quality and life satisfaction was conditional on the wife’s marital happiness.

For ease of interpretation, we have plotted illustrative results in Figure 1 . The left panel of the figure shows that, after controlling all other covariates, husbands who rated their marital quality as very poor ( M = 1.0) and whose wives also rated their marital quality as very poor ( M = 1.0) reported a life satisfaction score of just 1.8 (out of 6) compared to 5.4(a 3.6-point improvement) if their wives’ marital quality score was a 4. In other words, even an unhappily married man may have his life satisfaction buoyed when his wife experiences high marital satisfaction. By contrast, among wives who rated their marriage very poorly ( M = 1.0), their life satisfaction score was only modestly higher when husbands’ scores were 4 rather than 1 (4.0 vs. 2.5, or a 1.5-point improvement). An unhappily married woman may experience slightly elevated levels of life satisfaction when her husband is satisfied with the marriage, yet the increase is much flatter than among husbands.

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Plotted Interaction Effects: Husband by Wife Marital Appraisal on Subjective Well-Being.

Stated otherwise, among persons with very low marital quality ( M = 1.0), husbands experienced life satisfaction increases of roughly 1.3 points with each 1-point increase in his wife’s marital appraisals, whereas wives experienced comparable increases of just 0.5 points per each 1-point increase in their husbands’ marital appraisals. We did not find evidence of statistically significant interaction terms for experienced happiness (see Table 4 ).

Our analysis is the first we know of to explore associations among own, spouse’s, and combined marital quality appraisals and both general and momentary assessments of subjective well-being among a nationally representative sample of married older adults. The findings, based on a unique daily diary data set, offer several new insights into the complex associations between marital quality and two distinct aspects of emotional well-being in later life.

Marital Quality Similarly Associated With Husbands’ and Wives’ Well-Being

We found that marital quality was strongly associated with evaluations of one’s life as a whole (as reflected in judgments of life satisfaction) and moment-to-moment experiences of happiness while performing daily activities. These associations were substantial in magnitude and persisted net of controls. To put these coefficient sizes into perspective, note that each 1-point increase on a 4-point marital quality scale was associated with a 0.45-point increase in husbands’ global satisfaction and a 0.42-point increase in momentary happiness, whereas being disability free was associated with a 0.21-point boost in life satisfaction and a 0.23-point increase in momentary happy mood. The unadjusted models explained roughly five times as much of the variance in life satisfaction versus momentary happiness, whereas the fully adjusted models explained roughly twice as much of the variance in satisfaction versus daily happiness. The fully adjusted models included controls for daily activities, which may account for a sizable proportion of the variance in daily mood. Life satisfaction appears to be more responsive to traditional and enduring markers of life quality, such as marital quality, whereas measures of experienced well-being are more responsive to contemporaneous activities and circumstances ( Kahneman et al., 2006 ).

The magnitude of the associations between marital quality and well-being did not differ significantly by gender; neither was model fit appreciably different for men and women in our fully adjusted models. These patterns are consistent with prior studies based on small nonrepresentative samples of older couples ( Quirouette & Pushkar-Gold, 1992 ; Whisman et al., 2006 ) and the conclusion drawn from a recent meta-analysis ( Jackson et al., 2014 ). Although studies based on younger samples have consistently shown stronger linkages between marital quality and global well-being for women than men ( Proulx et al., 2007 ; Whisman et al., 2006 ), these analyses do not reflect distinctive aspects of older adults’ social roles, relations, and psychological development.

Marriage may be equally salient to the well-being of older men and women. Both older men’s and women’s future time horizons become more limited, and individuals consciously pare down their social networks to include only those to whom one is closest and those relationships deemed most important to one’s overall well-being ( Carstensen, 1991 ). Men’s work-related social ties and women’s rich friendship networks may diminish in number, whether by one’s own choice or the structural realities of retirement; death; and the onset of significant others’ aging-related challenges, including illness and caregiving ( Dykstra & Gierveld, 2004 ; Kulik, 2002 ). As such, spouses may grow increasingly and equally reliant on one another for both their overall and daily well-being ( Lang, 2001 ).

Second, as gender roles and relations shift over the life course the daily nature of marriage and its implications for men’s and women’s well-being may converge. When men retire and older women’s responsibility for minor children subside, spouses typically experience and report greater role equity ( Hagedoorn et al., 2006 ; Kulik, 2002 ). Older men may become more oriented toward family and affiliation and less oriented toward power and agency. Older women, by contrast, may place an increased emphasis on agency and self-fulfillment, and their identities and overall well-being become less closely tied to their relationships with others ( James, Lewkowicz, Libhaber, & Lachman, 1995 ). The relative importance of marriage to women’s well-being may decline, whereas its importance to men’s well-being may increase, leading to a convergence by later life.

Limited Evidence for Partner Effects

We did not find significant associations between older adults’ well-being and their spouses’ marital quality assessment. This pattern does not appear to reflect multicollinearity, because the zero-order correlation between the two spouses’ marital assessments was just .38. We expected to find evidence of partner effects, given prior writings suggesting that spouses who are dissatisfied with their marriage may treat their partner poorly by either instigating conflict or withdrawing emotional support ( Whisman et al., 2004 ). These acts may in turn have direct implications for the partner’s well-being. However, older adults may not act on their negative feelings toward their spouse, thus weakening the potential linkage between one spouse’s marital satisfaction and the other spouse’s emotional well-being. Older adults are more likely than younger adults to forgive their social partners or overlook their transgressions ( Allemand, 2008 ), or they may ignore problems with their significant others because the relationship is an important (or even sole) source of emotional closeness and intimacy ( Luong, Charles, & Fingerman, 2011 ).

Although we did not find evidence of partner effects related to marital appraisals, we did find that spouse’s health affected the life satisfaction of women only. This finding is consistent with a vast literature documenting that women are more likely than men to act as a caregiver to their spouse. Women help maintain their husband’s health by providing healthy meals and encouraging healthy behaviors, including compliance with physicians’ recommendations ( Umberson et al., 2006 ). Wives also tend to provide direct physical care to their unhealthy husbands; wife caregivers perform a greater number and range of tasks and provide more hours of caregiving than do husband caregivers ( Pinquart & Sorensen, 2006 ). This caregiving may in turn tax women’s emotional well-being ( Kaufman & Taniguchi, 2006 ). Our results contribute to a mounting literature showing that husband’s health contributes to a range of wife outcomes, including her perceptions of marital conflict ( Iveniuk, Waite, Laumann, McClintock, & Tiedt, 2014 ), although wives’ health does not have comparable effects on husband well-being.

Men’s Satisfaction and Multiplicative Marital Quality Effects

Finally, we found that the strength of association between a man’s marital quality assessment and his life satisfaction is contingent on his wife’s marital appraisals. A man who views his marriage very unfavorably may still enjoy relatively high levels of life satisfaction if his wife views the marriage favorably. However, a similarly pronounced pattern did not emerge among women. These patterns may reflect gendered interactions and communication within marriage. Women typically provide more health-enhancing support to husbands than vice versa, and women’s provision of effective emotional and practical spousal support is linked to their own levels of marital happiness ( Williamson & Schaffer, 2001 ). A happily married woman may be highly motivated to provide care and practical support to her spouse, such that even an unhappily married man may receive practical benefits that enhance his overall well-being. Moreover, women are more likely to try to engage partners in marital issues, whether a happily married woman praising positive aspects, or an unhappily married woman criticizing her husband. By contrast, men tend to take a more passive or silent approach, whereby their feelings toward the marriage may not be conveyed to their spouse. Given men’s more passive style of marital interaction, their marital unhappiness may not compound their wives’ marital dissatisfaction to affect her overall well-being ( Heavey et al., 1993 ).

Our results may also reflect gender differences in the bases of one’s marital quality appraisals. Recent research shows that older husbands’ marital appraisals depend heavily on what men feel their wives do for them (e.g., “She makes me feel loved and supported”), whereas older wives’ marital satisfaction is based largely on what she feels she does for her husband (e.g., “I make him feel loved and supported”; Boerner, Jopp, Carr, Sosinsky, & Kim, 2014 ). In other words, both men’s and women’s evaluations of marital quality are shaped by the perceived benefits for the husband. Thus, a couple in which both report high satisfaction may be one in which the wife gives a lot and the husband feels he receives a lot, thus enhancing his life satisfaction.


The DUST provides a unique opportunity to assess how assessments of marital quality matter for both partners’ subjective well-being, including both general and momentary measures. However, our study has several limitations. First, although DUST is embedded in a longitudinal panel, it is cross-sectional, and we therefore cannot ascertain causal ordering. It is plausible that one’s psychological well-being may bias both own and spouse’s marital appraisals. People evaluate their circumstances more positively when they are in a happy rather than sad mood. Similarly, persons with high levels of negative affect tend to offer more negative accounts of their marriages and are more likely to recall negative information about past experiences ( Teasdale, Taylor, & Fogarty, 1980 ). Unhappy persons also are less capable of providing their spouses the love and support they desire, or they may instigate frequent marital conflicts ( Iveniuk et al., 2014 ). Our concerns are partly allayed by a recent meta-analysis showing that the association between marital quality and well-being was stronger when well-being was the dependent variable ( Proulx et al., 2007 ). Furthermore, the associations we detected between marital quality and well-being were comparable for both well-being measures despite their distinctive properties: Life satisfaction is evaluative, whereas momentary well-being may change often and in response to one’s immediate social context ( George, 2010 ; Kahneman et al., 2006 ). To further explore these issues, we conducted supplementary analyses in which we reestimated all models using measures of negative aspects of momentary mood, including feeling sad, worried, and frustrated. The results were virtually identical to those presented here, in which negative moods were inversely related to own but not spouse’s marital quality reports.

Second, the DUST does not measure personality traits, such as neuroticism or agreeableness ( Whisman et al., 2006 ). Such measures are potentially important contributors to both marital quality and subjective well-being ( Iveniuk et al., 2014 ) and would enable a fuller assessment of whether individuals have a “set point,” or relatively stable level of happiness as a function of enduring traits ( Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006 ). Although we could not directly explore personality’s influence on life satisfaction, momentary well-being models were estimated with a parameter to capture unmeasured attributes of respondents, suggesting that personality alone is unlikely to account for the marital quality–experienced happiness relationship.

Third, we focused on marital quality as a predictor of well-being but did not consider the extent to which marital quality (his, hers, or both) buffer against the effect of other late-life stressors, such as caregiving or functional impairment. Finally, given the cross-sectional design of the DUST, we could not assess the role of social selection. If marriages that are appraised highly are more likely to remain intact and are more likely to enhance subjective well-being, selectivity into long-term marriages may overstate these relationships. Future waves of the DUST may allow fuller exploration of these issues.

Despite these limitations, our study reveals the important and complex role that marital appraisals play in the lives of older adults. Marital quality is an important factor shaping both global well-being (happy lives) and experienced well-being (happy days). For husbands, in particular, life satisfaction is enhanced by wives’ marital happiness, even among men who view their marriages unfavorably. Taken together, our results suggest that future research on marriage and well-being in later life should consider both spouses’ perspectives on marital quality and should explore how these perspectives are linked to specific behaviors, such as spousal caregiving, that may enhance the other partner’s well-being.


This work was supported by the National Institute on Aging (Grant P01 AG029409-04). The views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not represent their employers or the funding agency.

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Keeping Marriages Healthy, and Why It’s So Difficult


People rarely change their minds about subjects that are important to them. Those who favor gun control today are likely to favor gun control ten years from now, and those who vote for Democratic candidates today are likely to do so throughout their lives.

Yet intimate relationships, and marriages in particular, are the exception to this rule. After two people stand before everyone important to them in the world and publicly declare that they love each other and intend to remain together for the rest of their lives, everything social psychology has learned about the stability of publicly declared opinions suggests that these will be the most stable opinions of all (Festinger, 1957). Yet of course they aren’t. Despite the almost uniform happiness and optimism of newlyweds, most first marriages will end in divorce or permanent separation (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002), and the rate of dissolution for remarriages is even higher (Cherlin, 1992). In most cases, this represents a drastic and unwanted change in a highly valued belief, a change that is emotionally and financially costly to both members of the couple. Even in marriages that remain intact, newlyweds’ initially high levels of marital satisfaction tend to decline over time (VanLaningham, Johnson, & Amato, 2001). How can we account for this change? How is it that marital satisfaction declines so frequently, despite our best efforts to hold on to the positive feelings that motivate marriage in the first place? And what is it those couples that maintain their initial happiness are doing right?

What couples that stay happy are doing right

Understanding how marital satisfaction changes requires first understanding how thoughts and opinions about a marriage and a spouse are structured. Our representations of our partners are complex and multifaceted, consisting of perceptions that range from specific and concrete (e.g., “My spouse makes great pancakes.”) to global and evaluative (e.g., “My spouse is wonderful!”) (John, Hampson, & Goldberg, 1991). Although we are generally motivated to believe the best about our partners, we are not equally motivated or able to protect all our beliefs at all levels of abstraction (e.g., Dunning, 1995). For example, if my partner actually makes terrible pancakes, it is neither possible nor terribly important to believe otherwise. However, if I am to stay happily married, it is desirable to find a way to believe that my spouse is wonderful, and it is possible to do so by identifying and focusing on specific perceptions that might support this global belief.

That is what happy couples do. When couples in the early years of marriage are asked to rate which specific aspects of their relationships are most important to the success of their marriage, they generally point to whatever aspects of their relationship are most positive, and the spouses who demonstrate this tendency most strongly are the ones who are the happiest with their relationships overall (Neff & Karney, 2003). This selection process does not happen only at the beginning of the relationship. Over time, as specific aspects of the relationship change, with some parts becoming more positive and some becoming more negative, the couples who stay happiest overall are the ones who change their beliefs about what is important in their relationships accordingly, deciding that whatever aspects of the marriage have declined must not be so important after all (Neff & Karney, 2003). As a consequence of this continued process of selective attention, global evaluations of a marriage tend to be pretty stable from day to day, as these are the evaluations we are motivated to protect, but perceptions of specific aspects of the marriage tend to vary, more positive on good days and less positive on bad days (McNulty & Karney, 2001).

So what happens to those less positive specific perceptions? They don’t disappear. Even happy newlyweds readily acknowledge that their partners are not perfect in every way (Neff & Karney, 2005). Staying positive about the relationship requires that spouses find ways to integrate their perceptions of specific problems and disappointments within an overall positive view of the marriage. One way spouses can do this is by generating explanations for a spouse’s failings that limit any broader implications those failings may have. For example, if my spouse is distant and withdrawn one evening, deciding that my spouse’s behavior is a symptom of a difficult day at work (rather than a sign of a lack of interest in me) means that the behavior has no global implications for my marriage. For spouses who tend to make these sorts of charitable explanations for their partner’s disappointing or irritating behaviors, global evaluations of the marriage remain relatively stable from day to day even when perceptions of specific aspects of the relationship are fluctuating. For spouses who make less charitable explanations, blaming each other for faults and missteps, specific perceptions and global evaluations are more closely linked, such that the entire marriage seems less rewarding on days when specific elements are bad and the entire marriage seems more rewarding on days when specific elements are good (McNulty & Karney, 2001). In other words, making charitable explanations severs the link between specific negative perceptions and global evaluation of the marriage, leaving the global evaluations more resilient. Couples who are able to acknowledge their partner’s faults while maintaining positive views of their marriage overall have more stable satisfaction over time (Karney & Bradbury, 2000) and they are less likely to divorce in the early years of marriage (Neff & Karney, 2005).

Why is maintaining a relationship so difficult?

If this sort of integration is so beneficial, and if happy newlyweds are already doing it, why do newlyweds’ initially high levels of marital satisfaction nevertheless decline so frequently? The short answer is that making allowances for a spouse’s inevitable shortcomings is difficult, and especially so because marriages and other intimate relationships do not take place in a vacuum. The way that spouses think about and respond to each other is a product of broader forces that affect marriages and intimate relationships. As research identifies more of the processes that contribute to stability and change in marital satisfaction, models of these processes have expanded to account for those broader forces. One framework that attempts this is the Vulnerability-Stress-Adaptation Model of Marriage (i.e., the VSA model; Karney & Bradbury, 1995). Consistent with the research described above, the VSA model (see Figure 1) describes adaptive processes (e.g., solving problems, explaining each other’s behavior) as directly affecting how marital satisfaction changes over time. The model further suggests that these processes themselves are facilitated or constrained by spouse’s enduring vulnerabilities (e.g., cognitive styles, personality traits, childhood experiences) and the stressful circumstances they encounter outside the relationship (e.g., work load, financial strains, health problems).

Research informed by the VSA model suggests two general reasons why spouses’ attempts to maintain their initially high marital satisfaction may fall short over time. First, some people are naturally better at it than others. For example, when asked to write open-ended paragraphs about issues in their marriages, some spouses recognize that there can be two sides to every conflict and that compromises are possible. Others write only about their own perspective, failing to recognize that other perspectives are possible, let alone valid. When couples who have written these paragraphs are then invited to discuss real marital issues, the ability to recognize multiple perspectives emerges as a significant predictor of the quality of their discussions, as rated by outside observers (Karney & Gauer, in press). Where does this ability come from? A likely source is exposure to more or less successful problem-solving in early childhood. Indeed, wives whose parents divorced when they were children and husbands whose childhood family environments were highly negative also have more difficulty resolving problems together, and are at risk for declines in marital satisfaction as a result (Story, Karney, Lawrence, & Bradbury, 2004).

Second, maintaining a relationship takes energy, and in some contexts that energy is in short supply. It is not enough that couples have the ability to address problems effectively if they lack the capacity to exercise those abilities in the moment. Unfortunately, in the context of stress, even couples who are normally effective at maintaining their relationships may find it difficult to do so. To evaluate this possibility, recently married couples were asked about the kinds of explanations they made for each other’s negative behaviors every six months for the first four years of their marriages (Neff & Karney, 2004). At each assessment, they were also asked to describe and rate the stressful events they had been exposed to outside of the marriage (e.g., stress at work, financial strains, problems with friends or extended family, health issues, etc.) during each six month interval. Controlling for changes in their marital satisfaction over that time, the way spouses understood each other’s negative behaviors at each assessment was significantly associated with the stress they had been under during that period. When stress was low, spouses on average were able to generate more charitable explanations for each other’s negative behaviors, preventing those behaviors from affecting their global feelings about the marriage. But after periods of relatively high stress, the same spouses who had demonstrated this ability were significantly less likely to exercise it, and so were more likely to blame their partners for negative behaviors that they had previously excused.

In addition to highlighting the main effects of enduring vulnerabilities and stressful circumstances on marriage, the VSA model suggests that these relatively independent sources of influence on marital processes interact. That is, among individuals with comparable levels of enduring vulnerabilities, those who encounter stressful circumstances will have an especially hard time maintaining their relationships, and among individuals encountering similar levels of stress, the ones most at risk for relationship problems are the ones who also have numerous enduring vulnerabilities. Survey research that oversampled from low-income and underrepresented communities (Rauer, Karney, Garvan, & Hou, 2008) confirms these sorts of interactions, showing that the associations between relationship satisfaction and any particular constraint on adaptive processes (e.g., mental health problems, financial strain, substance abuse) becomes stronger in the presence of other risk factors.

So, why is it so difficult to maintain the initial positive feelings that characterize most newlywed couples? It is difficult because some disappointments are inevitable in any long-term committed relationship, because some spouses lack the ability to respond to those disappointments effectively, and because even spouses who have the ability may encounter stressful circumstances that prevent them from exercising their abilities when they are most needed.

Implications for helping couples succeed

Dominant approaches to strengthening marriages and other intimate relationships focus almost exclusively on adaptive processes, i.e., teaching couples a set of skills for resolving problems and dealing with disappointments when they arise (e.g., Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg, 1994). The VSA model and the research informed by it suggest that there may be a limit to what these approaches can accomplish. Individuals coping with significant personal vulnerabilities may not be able to change their behaviors. Even couples that know perfectly well how to respond to each other effectively may lose their capacity for effective adaptive processes when under stress. In light of these broader forces affecting relationships, policies that address individual well-being and current sources of stress on family life may be as effective at promoting healthy relationships as any interventions that target relationships directly. Research on the effects of public policies on marital outcomes supports this idea. In Norway, for example, after the government began offering cash incentives to parents that elected to forgo state-subsidized childcare and stay home with their children, divorce rates fell significantly even though the new policy did not target marriages directly (Hardoy & Schøne, 2008). Policies like these that simply make life easier for families and individuals may contribute to an environment that supports marriages and other intimate relationships. In such an environment, more spouses and partners may prove capable of maintaining their relationships on their own.

Bramlett, M. D., & Mosher, W. D. (2002). Cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the United States (Vital and Health Statistics No. Series 23, Number 22). Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics.

Cherlin, A. J. (1992). Marriage, divorce, remarriage (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dunning, D. (1995). Trait importance and modifiability as factors influencing self-assessment and self-enhancement motives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 1297-1306.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.

Hardoy, I., & Schøne, P. (2008). Subsidizing "stayers"? Effects of a Norwegian child care reform on marital stability. Journal of Marriage and Family , 70, 571-584.

John, O. P., Hampson, S. E., & Goldberg, L. R. (1991). The basic level in personality-trait hierarchies: Studies of trait use and accessibility in different contexts. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology , 60, 348-361.

Karney, B. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (1995). The longitudinal course of marital quality and stability: A review of theory, methods, and research. Psychological Bulletin , 118, 3-34.

Karney, B. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (2000). Attributions in marriage: State or trait? A growth curve analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 78, 295-309.

Karney, B. R., & Gauer, B. (in press). Cognitive complexity and marital interaction in newlyweds. Personal Relationships .

Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (1994). Fighting for your marriage: Positive steps for preventing divorce and preserving a lasting love . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McNulty, J. K., & Karney, B. R. (2001). Attributions in marriage: Integrating specific and global evaluations of a relationship. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 943-955.

Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2003). The dynamic structure of relationship perceptions: Differential importance as a strategy of relationship maintenance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , 29, 1433-1446.

Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2004). How does context affect intimate relationships? Linking external stress and cognitive processes within marriage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , 30, 134-148.

Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2005). To know you is to love you: The implications of global adoration and specific accuracy for marital relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 88, 480-497.

Rauer, A. J., Karney, B. R., Garvan, C. W., & Hou, W. (2008). Relationship risks in context: A cumulative risk approach to understanding relationship satisfaction. Journal of Marriage and Family , 70, 1122-1135.

Story, L. B., Karney, B. R., Lawrence, E., & Bradbury, T. N. (2004). Interpersonal mediators in the intergenerational transmission of marital dysfunction. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 519-529.

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For Your Marriage

research articles on marriage

Marriage Today By For Your Marriage Staff and Associates

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Ten Important Research Findings On Marriage

by David Popenoe, Ph.D.

Related Topics: Research

1. Marrying as a teenager is the highest known risk factor for divorce.

People who marry in their teens are two to three times more likely to divorce than people who marry in their twenties or later.

2. People are most likely to find a future marriage partner through an introduction by family, friends, or acquaintances.

Despite the romantic notion that people meet and fall in love through chance or fate, evidence suggests that social networks are important in bringing together individuals of similar interests and backgrounds. According to a large-scale national survey, almost 60% of married people were introduced by family, friends, co-workers or other acquaintances.

3. People who are similar in their values, backgrounds and life goals are more likely to have a successful marriage .

Opposites may attract but they may not live together harmoniously as married couples. People who share common backgrounds and similar social networks are better suited as marriage partners than people who are very different in their backgrounds and networks.

4. Women have a significantly better chance of marrying if they do not become single parents before marrying.

Having a child out of wedlock reduces the chances of ever marrying. Despite the growing numbers of potential marriage partners with children, one study noted, “having children is still one of the least desirable characteristics a potential marriage partner can possess.” The only characteristic ranked lower is the inability to hold a steady job.

5. Women and men who are college-educated are more likely to marry, and less likely to divorce, than people with lower levels of education.

Predictions of lifelong singlehood for college-educated women have proven false. Although the first generation of college-educated women (those who earned baccalaureate degrees in the 1920s) married less frequently than their less well-educated peers, the reverse is true today. College-educated women’s chances of marrying are better than less well-educated women. However, the growing gender gap in college education may make it more difficult for college women to find similarly well-educated men in the future. This is already a problem for African-American female college graduates, who greatly outnumber African-American male college graduates.

6. Living together before marriage has not proved useful as a “trial marriage.”

People who have multiple cohabiting relationships before marriage are more likely to experience marital conflict, marital unhappiness and eventual divorce than people who do not cohabit before marriage. Researchers attribute some but not all of these differences to the characteristics of people who cohabit, the so-called “selection effect,” rather than to the experience of cohabiting itself. It has been suggested that the negative effects of cohabitation on future marital success may diminish as living together becomes a common experience. However, according to one study of couples who were married between 1981 and 1997, the negative effects persist among younger cohorts, supporting the view that the cohabitation experience itself contributes to problems in marriage.

7. Marriage helps people to generate income and wealth.

Married people do better economically. Men become more productive after marriage; they earn between ten and forty percent more than single men with similar education and job histories. Marital social norms that encourage healthy, productive behavior and wealth accumulation play a role. Some of the greater wealth of married couples results from their more efficient specialization and pooling of resources, and because they save more. Married people also receive more money from family members than the unmarried (including cohabiting couples), probably because families consider marriage more permanent and binding than a cohabiting union.

8. People who are married are more likely to have emotionally and physically satisfying sex lives than single people or those who live together.

Contrary to the popular belief that married sex is boring and infrequent, married people report higher levels of sexual satisfaction than sexually active singles and cohabiting couples, according to the most comprehensive and recent survey of sexuality. Forty-two percent of wives said that they found sex emotionally and physically satisfying, compared to just 31% of single women who had a sex partner. Forty-eight percent of husbands said sex was satisfying emotionally, compared to just 37% of cohabiting men. The higher level of commitment in marriage is probably the reason for the high level of reported sexual satisfaction. Marital commitment contributes to a greater sense of trust and security, less drug and alcohol-infused sex, and better communication between spouses.

9. People whose parents divorced are slightly less likely to marry. They are much more likely to divorce when they do marry.

According to one study the divorce risk nearly triples if one marries someone who also comes from a home where the parents divorced. The increased risk is much lower, however, if the marital partner is someone who grew up in a happy, intact family.

10. For large segments of the population, the risk of divorce is far below fifty percent.

Although the overall divorce rate in America remains close to fifty percent of all marriages, it has been dropping over the past two decades. The risk of divorce is far below fifty percent for educated people going into their first marriage, and lower still for people who wait to marry at least until their mid-twenties, haven’t lived with many different partners prior to marriage, or are strongly religious and marry someone of the same faith.

Information from Ten Important Research Findings on Marriage and Choosing a Marriage Partner: Helpful Facts for Young Adults (New Brunswick, N.J.: National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, November 2004)

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Data report article, marital satisfaction, sex, age, marriage duration, religion, number of children, economic status, education, and collectivistic values: data from 33 countries.

research articles on marriage


Forms of committed relationships, including formal marriage arrangements between men and women, exist in almost every culture ( Bell, 1997 ). Yet, similarly to many other psychological constructs ( Henrich et al., 2010 ), marital satisfaction and its correlates have been investigated almost exclusively in Western countries (e.g., Bradbury et al., 2000 ). Meanwhile, marital relationships are heavily guided by culturally determined norms, customs, and expectations (for review see Berscheid, 1995 ; Fiske et al., 1998 ). While we acknowledge the differences existing both between- and within-cultures, we measured marital satisfaction and several factors that might potentially correlate with it based on self-report data from individuals across 33 countries. The purpose of this paper is to introduce the raw data available for anybody interested in further examining any relations between them and other country-level scores obtained elsewhere. Below, we review the central variables that are likely to be related to marital satisfaction.

Gender has long been identified in the literature as a predictor of marital satisfaction ( Bernard, 1972 ). Specifically, early works suggested that men report being more satisfied with their marriages compared to women in both Western (e.g., Schumm et al., 1998 ) and non-Western (e.g., Rostami et al., 2014 ) cultures. However, sex differences in marital satisfaction may differ across cultures due to traditional sex roles ( Pardo et al., 2012 ) and larger-scale cultural variables, such as sex egalitarianism ( Taniguchi and Kaufman, 2013 ).

Few studies have explicitly examined age effects on reports of marital satisfaction (see Schmitt et al., 2007 ). Thus, no clear predictions concerning age-related patterns of results can be derived from the literature. However, in some studies, age was found to be negatively related to marital satisfaction (e.g., Lee and Shehan, 1989 ). Importantly, age should be examined as a predictor of marital satisfaction with respect to the duration of the marriage.

Duration of the Marriage

The time that partners have spent together has been shown to correlate with marital satisfaction ( Kurdek, 1999 ; Lavner and Bradbury, 2010 ). The effect of marriage length on marital satisfaction is negative (it decreases with a relationship length) or U-shaped (it decreases in the beginning and increases after some time) ( Karney and Bradbury, 1995 ; Kurdek, 1999 ). One could predict that this variable may differ across cultures as, for example, in arranged marriages relationship satisfaction might be lower in the early stages of a marriage ( Xiaohe and Whyte, 1990 ).


For many cultures, religion is strongly connected to numerous relationship-related values and norms and thus it may be correlated with marital satisfaction ( Call and Heaton, 1997 ; Fincham et al., 2011 ). Positive associations between religiosity and marital satisfaction have been found across different religious groups, such as Christians, Jewish, Mormons, and Muslims ( Marks, 2005 ).

Some previous studies from various cultures revealed contradictory results regarding the correlation between the number of children and marital satisfaction (see Twenge et al., 2003 ; Onyishi et al., 2012 ). This suggests that some culture-dependent factors may influence the association between marital satisfaction and the number of children.

Economic Status

Low income or material hardship is associated with a serious threat to marital quality and stability ( Lichter and Carmalt, 2009 ). However, some studies showed cross-cultural differences in the strength of this association ( Kamo, 1993 ).

Few studies examine whether education level is related to marital satisfaction. For example, Janssen et al. (1998) found that highly educated women had higher rates of unstable marriages. Using the National Survey of Family Growth data, Heaton (2002) round opposite results, wherein marital dissolution was lower among women who were more educated. Therefore, the findings regarding the association between marital satisfaction and education level based primarily on Western culture are not clear and raise the question of whether such an association exists globally.

Cultural Considerations (Collectivism vs. Individualism)

The criteria of a satisfying marriage may vary greatly based on one's larger cultural context, specifically on whether the culture primarily identifies as a collectivistic or an individualistic one ( Dillon and Beechler, 2010 ). Collectivistic and individualistic cultures have different cultural norms, values, and familial obligations ( Hofstede, 2001 ). For example, fulfilling familial duties may be beneficial for marital satisfaction in a traditional Chinese marriage ( Wang, 1994 ), whereas fulfilling hedonistic goals of husbands and wives seems to predict marital satisfaction in Western countries (e.g., Lalonde et al., 2004 ).

The current dataset gathers the data about marital satisfaction and its potential correlates from 33 Western and non-Western countries. We measured gender, age, duration of marriage, religiosity, number of children, economic status, education and individualism/collectivism. The dataset is introduced in order to supplement previous studies conducted typically on Westernized samples.

Materials and Methods


Data from 7,767 individuals was collected in 33 countries: Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Croatia, Estonia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, and Uganda. All participants were over the age of 18 and were currently married. Due to missing data 589 subjects were excluded. The final sample included data from 7,178 participants. On average, the participants were 40.7 years old ( SD = 11.4), and the average marriage duration to date was 14.8 years ( SD = 11.6).

The study was conducted according to the principles of the Declaration of Helsinki. The data were collected from July 2012 to December 2013 by the co-authors and their respective research teams in their home countries. All samples were convenience samples. Depending on the country, students were recruited in different ways (e.g., students, acquaintances of the researchers, participants of vocational courses, inhabitants of home towns of the researchers etc.). All participants took part in the study on a voluntary basis and provided an informed consent. The procedure across almost all study sites was identical—they completed the paper-and-pencil questionnaires with an approximate time of participation of 30 min, with an exception of two countries (Switzerland and Bulgaria) where some participants filled in the questionnaires online. In general, participants were not compensated for their participation, however participants in Hong Kong were compensated 50 Hong Kong dollars. In countries where more than one person filled in the questionnaire at the same time, we were concerned with their anonymity and the fact that they were not influencing each other. The detailed sampling strategies and research forms are presented for each country separately in Table 1 .

Table 1 . Detailed place of the study, recruitment strategy and form of the study.

The original version of the questionnaires were in English, and in all non-English speaking countries the questionnaires were translated into participants' native language by research team members fluent in English using the back-translation procedure ( Brislin, 1970 ). Specifically, the research teams translated the measures into the native language of the participants, and then had a bilingual person back-translate the measures into English. Differences between the original English version and the back-translation were discussed, and mutual agreements were made on the most appropriate translation.

Marital Satisfaction

Marital satisfaction was measured with two scales to ensure that results were not dependent upon the applied questionnaire. In the first step, participants completed the Marriage and Relationships Questionnaire (MRQ) developed by Russell and Wells (1993) . Specifically, the 9-item version of the MRQ (“Love Scale”) was used because it has been found to be appropriate for cross-cultural use in terms of satisfactory psychometric characteristics ( Lucas et al., 2008 ; Weisfeld et al., 2011 ). Sample questions from this questionnaire included: “Do you enjoy your husband's/wife's company?”; “Do you enjoy doing things together?”; “Are you proud of your husband/wife?”. Participants answered these questions on a 5-point scale, which ranged from 1 ( yes ) to 5 ( no ). A higher number indicated higher marital satisfaction. Secondly, participants completed the Kansas Marital Satisfaction Scale (KMSS; Schumm et al., 1983 ; Schumm and Bugaighis, 1986 ), which is also a well-established tool of satisfactory psychometric characteristics ( Schumm and Bugaighis, 1986 ; Crane et al., 2000 ). The KMSS has previously been validated for studies involving non-Western samples ( Shek and Tsang, 1993 ). The scale contains 3 questions: “How satisfied are you with your marriage?”; “How satisfied are you with your wife/husband as a spouse?”; “How satisfied are you with your relationship with your wife/husband?”. Participants answered this questions on a 7-point scale, which ranged from 1 ( very dissatisfied ) to 7 ( very satisfied ). A higher number indicated higher marital satisfaction.

In order to test whether the scales were culturally equivalent, we conducted exploratory factor analysis and then compared factor score loadings obtained in each country with the pooled data using the proportionality coefficient (Tucker's Phi). We also analyzed the reliability of each scale of marital satisfaction (Table 1 ), and we conducted an exploratory factor analysis in each sample for the MRQ scale. One item (“ Do you love your husband/wife?” ) had low factor score loadings for several countries (Romania: −0.382; Nigeria: 0.286; Malaysia: 0.247; Kenya: 0.396), so it should be excluded from the further analysis. We then calculated the proportionality coefficient (Tucker's phi) by comparing factor score loadings of the 8-item scale between the pooled data and each sample's factor score loadings separately. The results indicated that the scale was culturally equivalent (Table 2 ). Cronbach's alpha for the scale calculated on the pooled data was 0.90. Results of this analysis indicated that KMSS scale was reliable and culturally equivalent (Table 2 ). Cronbach's alpha on the pooled data reached 0.94.

Table 2 . Results of the analysis of cultural equivalence of the scale.

Potential Predictors of Marital Satisfaction

Participants completed a series of standard questions concerning: (1) gender, (2) age, (3) marriage duration in years (4) number of children and number of raised children, (5) religiosity and religious affiliation, (6) subjective economic status (7) education, (8) individual level of collectivistic values, and (9) cultural level of individualism.

Religiosity was measured using a single item (“Are you religious?”), and responses ranged from 1 ( not at all ) to 7 ( extremely religious ). Economic status was measured by asking participants to rate their material situation on a 5-point scale—1 ( much better than average in my country) , 5 ( much worse than average in my country ).

Perceived level of country Collectivism - Individualism was measured by a scale taken from the GLOBE survey (global study on different variables across 62 countries; House et al., 1999 ). Because our study concerned family, we used only items regarding familial collectivism (Family Collectivistic Practices; House et al., 1999 ). This scale was created to test pride in and loyalty to family (and/or organization) and family (and/or organizational) cohesiveness. Sample questions from this scale are: “In this society, parents take pride in the individual accomplishments of their children,” “In this society, aging parents generally live at home with their children.” Participants answered this sentence on a 7-point scale (from 1— strongly agree to 7— strongly disagree ). We recoded the answers so that a higher number indicated higher collectivism. Because the original items were constructed to test Collectivism on the national level (i.e., “In this society, aging parents generally live at home with their children”), we added also their modified version, measuring collectivism on the individual level (i.e., “I think, aging parents should live at home with their children”). The possible answers in this scale were the same as in its original version ( House et al., 1999 ).

Strengths and Limitations

Compared to previously published cross-cultural studies, the present data set has a number of distinctive features: (1) our data set involves thousands ( N = 7,178) of participants allowing large-scale analyses; (2) we considered five different regions of the world, some of which have only been included in a handful of previous studies (e.g., Onyishi et al., 2012 ); (3) all participants filled in the same questionnaires and almost all of them followed the same procedures; (4) all participants took part in the study in the same years (2012-2013) to control for any temporal effects; and (5) we measured many variables previously shown to correlate with marital satisfaction. To facilitate the further analyses, we provide basic descriptive statistics of the measured variables (see Table 3 ).

Table 3 . Descriptive Statistics (average age, marriage duration, education, number of children, marital satisfaction, and collectivistic values).

Despite the numerous strengths, our study has some limitations. Firstly, due to sampling procedures it could have been the case that both partners in the relationship completed the survey. There is no way to be certain about this, but it is unlikely that multiple individuals within relationship jointly participated in the study which might potentially cause issues related to the interdependence of the data. However, even if both partners took part in the study, their answers did not influence each other, because when both a wife and a husband were taking part in the research, they were completing their questionnaires separately. We were highly concerned with our participants' anonymity and sincerity. Secondly, our sample might not be fully representative of the participating countries, as data was collected in particular sites.

Possible Research Paths

Based on the presented dataset, scientists can conduct numerous analyses and publish articles concerning various research questions: they can examine cross-cultural differences in marital satisfaction, identifying other country-level predictors of marital satisfaction or use the measures of individualism/collectivism provided in the dataset. These potential country-level predictors (for example shared values in a culture given or demographic data) are likely to be obtainable from other online sources. These may include for example Schwartz's value orientations ( Schwartz, 2006 ) or Hofstede's culture dimensions ( Hofstede, 2001 ). Further, they can examine the indirect replicability of previously conducted studies of correlates of marital satisfaction. Although differences in marital satisfaction have been investigated in a number of cross-cultural and cross-ethnic studies, due to the vast amount of data from this set, the data may also serve as a reference point in further studies regarding marital satisfaction. The dataset can be used for purposes of methodological papers about the validity of existing marriage satisfaction scales (their psychometric properties across different countries).

One previously published study has been based on the presented dataset. Hilpert et al. (2016) found a culturally differentiated association between dyadic coping and marriage satisfaction. They also tested whether gender might moderate the association and found that in some nations the association is higher for men and in other nations it is higher for women.

Dataset Description

The data discussed in this manuscript have been deposited in Figshare repository and is accessible through the following hyperlink: under the name: “ Marital, Sex, Age, Marriage Duration, Religion, Number of Children, Economic Status, Education, and Collectivistic Values: Data from 33 Countries.” The deposit contains two files: (1) Marital satisfaction_Data, a xlsx file containing the raw data, and (2) Marital satisfaction_Questionnaire, a doc file containing the questionnaire, along with an exhaustive description of the column labels in the dataset.

Ethics Statement

This study was carried out in accordance with the recommendations of Institutional Review Board of the University of Wroclaw with written informed consent from all subjects. All subjects gave written informed consent in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. The protocol was approved by the Institutional Review Board.

Author Contributions

All authors listed, have made substantial, direct and intellectual contribution to the work, and approved it for publication. PS, AR, PH, and AS designed the study, PS, AS, AG, TF, KC, AR, PH contributed to the preparation of the manuscript. PS and AS coordinated the project. The rest of the authors collected data.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


This paper was made possible by the funds of Polish National Science Centre (grant number N N106 012740). In Saudi Arabia, the research was funded by the Deanship of Scientific Research at King Saud University.

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Keywords: marital satisfaction, cross-cultural research, relationships, Religion and Psychology, family studies

Citation: Sorokowski P, Randall AK, Groyecka A, Frackowiak T, Cantarero K, Hilpert P, Ahmadi K, Alghraibeh AM, Aryeetey R, Bertoni A, Bettache K, Błażejewska M, Bodenmann G, Bortolini TS, Bosc C, Butovskaya M, Castro FN, Cetinkaya H, Cunha D, David D, David OA, Espinosa ACD, Donato S, Dronova D, Dural S, Fisher M, Akkaya AH, Hamamura T, Hansen K, Hattori WT, Hromatko I, Gulbetekin E, Iafrate R, James B, Jiang F, Kimamo CO, Koç F, Krasnodębska A, Laar A, Lopes FA, Martinez R, Mesko N, Molodovskaya N, Qezeli KM, Motahari Z, Natividade JC, Ntayi J, Ojedokun O, Omar-Fauzee MSB, Onyishi IE, Özener B, Paluszak A, Portugal A, Realo A, Relvas AP, Rizwan M, Sabiniewicz AL, Salkičević S, Sarmány-Schuller I, Stamkou E, Stoyanova S, Šukolová D, Sutresna N, Tadinac M, Teras A, Ponciano ELT, Tripathi R, Tripathi N, Tripathi M, Yamamoto ME, Yoo G and Sorokowska A (2017) Marital Satisfaction, Sex, Age, Marriage Duration, Religion, Number of Children, Economic Status, Education, and Collectivistic Values: Data from 33 Countries. Front. Psychol . 8:1199. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01199

Received: 17 March 2017; Accepted: 30 June 2017; Published: 21 July 2017.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2017 Sorokowski, Randall, Groyecka, Frackowiak, Cantarero, Hilpert, Ahmadi, Alghraibeh, Aryeetey, Bertoni, Bettache, Błażejewska, Bodenmann, Bortolini, Bosc, Butovskaya, Castro, Cetinkaya, Cunha, David, David, Espinosa, Donato, Dronova, Dural, Fisher, Akkaya, Hamamura, Hansen, Hattori, Hromatko, Gulbetekin, Iafrate, James, Jiang, Kimamo, Koç, Krasnodębska, Laar, Lopes, Martinez, Mesko, Molodovskaya, Qezeli, Motahari, Natividade, Ntayi, Ojedokun, Omar-Fauzee, Onyishi, Özener, Paluszak, Portugal, Realo, Relvas, Rizwan, Sabiniewicz, Salkičević, Sarmány-Schuller, Stamkou, Stoyanova, Šukolová, Sutresna, Tadinac, Teras, Ponciano, Tripathi, Tripathi, Tripathi, Yamamoto, Yoo and Sorokowska. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Piotr Sorokowski, [email protected]

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The survey also examines how adults who are married and those who are living with an unmarried partner are experiencing their relationships. It finds that married adults are more satisfied with their relationship and more trusting of their partners than those who are cohabiting.

Amid changes in marriage and cohabitation, wide acceptance of cohabitation, even as many Americans see societal benefits in marriage

Views about marriage and cohabitation are also linked to religious affiliation. About three-quarters of Catholics (74%) and white Protestants who do not self-identify as born-again or evangelical (76%) say it’s acceptable for an unmarried couple to live together even if they don’t plan to get married. By contrast, only 47% of black Protestants and 35% of white evangelical Protestants share this view. And while half or more across these groups say society is better off if couples who want to stay together long-term eventually get married, white evangelicals are the most likely to say this (78% do so). Among those who are not religiously affiliated, fully nine-in-ten say cohabitation is acceptable even if a couple doesn’t plan to get married, and just 31% say society is better off if couples who want to stay together eventually get married.

The nationally representative survey of 9,834 U.S. adults was conducted online June 25-July 8, 2019, using Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel . 2 The survey includes 5,579 married adults and 880 adults who are living with an unmarried partner. It includes married and cohabiting adults in same-sex relationships. 3 Among the other key findings:

Married adults have higher levels of relationship satisfaction and trust than those living with an unmarried partner

Higher levels of trust and satisfaction among married than cohabiting adults

Married adults also express higher levels of satisfaction with their relationship. About six-in-ten married adults (58%) say things are going very well in their marriage; 41% of cohabiters say the same about their relationship with their partner.

When asked about specific aspects of their relationship, larger shares of married than cohabiting adults say they are very satisfied with the way household chores are divided between them and their spouse or partner, how well their spouse or partner balances work and personal life, how well they and their spouse or partner communicate, and their spouse’s or partner’s approach to parenting (among those with children younger than 18 in the household). When it comes to their sex life, however, similar shares of married and cohabiting adults say they are very satisfied.

Married adults are also more likely than cohabiters to say they feel closer to their spouse or partner than to any other adult. About eight-in-ten married adults (78%) say they feel closer to their spouse than to any other adult in their life; a narrower majority of cohabiters (55%) say the same about their partner.

Even after controlling for demographic differences between married and cohabiting adults (such as gender, age, race, religion and educational attainment), married adults express higher levels of satisfaction, trust and closeness than those who are living with a partner.

The reasons why people get married and the reasons they move in with a partner differ in some key ways

Love and companionship are among top reasons for marriage and cohabitation

About six-in-ten married adults (63%) say making a formal commitment was a major factor in their decision to get married. This is particularly the case among those who did not live with their spouse before getting married.

Among cohabiters, about a quarter (23%) say wanting to test their relationship was a major reason why they decided to move in with their partner.

Many cohabiting adults see living together as a step toward marriage

Non-engaged cohabiters with no college experience less likely to see cohabitation as a step toward marriage

Among cohabiters who are not currently engaged, those with at least some college education are more likely than those with less education to say they saw moving in with their partner as a step toward marriage. Half of cohabiting college graduates who are not engaged – and 43% of those with some college experience – say this, compared with 28% of those with a high school diploma or less education.

About four-in-ten cohabiting adults who are not currently engaged (41%) say they want to get married someday. Of this group, 58% say they are very likely to marry their current partner, while 27% say this is somewhat likely and 14% say it’s not too or not at all likely that they will marry their partner. About a quarter of non-engaged cohabiters (24%) say they don’t want to get married, and 35% aren’t sure.

Two-thirds of cohabiters who want to get married someday cite either their own or their partner’s finances as a reason why they’re not engaged or married

Many cohabiters cite finances as a reason why they are not engaged or married to their partner

Roughly four-in-ten cite not being far enough along in their job or career as a major or minor reason why they’re not engaged or married to their partner. Similar shares say they (44%) or their partner (47%) not being ready to make that kind of commitment is at least a minor reason why they’re not engaged or married, though more cite their partner not being ready, rather than themselves, as a major reason (26% vs. 14%).

Younger adults are more likely to see cohabitation as a path to a successful marriage

About half of U.S. adults (48%) say couples who live together before marriage have a better chance of having a successful marriage than those who don’t live together before marriage; 13% say couples who live together before marriage have a worse chance of having a successful marriage and 38% say it doesn’t make much difference.

Most adults younger than 30 say couples who live together first are more likely to have a successful marriage

Adults who lived with their spouse before they were married are much more likely than those who didn’t to say that couples who live together have a better chance of having a successful marriage (57% vs. 24%, respectively). About a third of married adults who didn’t live with their spouse before marriage (32%) say cohabitation worsens a couple’s chance of having a successful marriage, while 44% say it doesn’t make much difference.

A majority of Americans say cohabiting couples can raise children just as well as married couples

About six-in-ten say cohabiting couples can raise children just as well as married couples

White non-evangelical Protestants (57%) and black Protestants (59%) are far more likely than white evangelicals (33%) to say cohabiting couples can raise children as well as those who are married.

There are also differences among Catholics: 73% of Hispanic Catholics – compared with 48% of white Catholics – say cohabiting and married couples can raise children equally well.

Views on this are also linked to partisanship. Overall, 73% of Democrats and those who lean Democratic say cohabiting couples can raise children just as well as married couples; 41% of Republicans and those who lean to the GOP say the same. These gaps persist even when taking religion and age, which are strongly linked to partisanship, into account.

Cohabiting adults (82%) are far more likely than those who are married (52%) to say couples who are living together but are not married can raise children as well as married couples. Cohabiters with and without children younger than 18 in the household are about equally likely to hold this view.

Most Americans favor allowing unmarried couples to have the same legal rights as married couples

About two-thirds favor allowing unmarried couples to have the same legal rights as married couples

About three-quarters of Democrats (77%) favor allowing unmarried couples to enter into these types of legal agreements. In contrast, Republicans are about evenly divided, with 50% saying they favor and 49% saying they oppose this.

Most don’t see being married as essential to living a fulfilling life

Small shares see being married as essential for a man or a woman to live a fulfilling life

References to whites, blacks and Asians include only those who are non-Hispanic and identify as only one race. Asians include Pacific Islanders. Hispanics are of any race. For the most part, the views and experiences of Asians are not analyzed separately in this report due to sample limitations. In the analysis of Current Population Survey data in chapter 1, data for Asians are shown separately. Data for Asians and other racial and ethnic groups are incorporated into the general population figures throughout the report.

References to college graduates or people with a college degree comprise those with a bachelor’s degree or more. “Some college” includes those with an associate degree and those who attended college but did not obtain a degree. “High school” refers to those who have a high school diploma or its equivalent, such as a General Education Development (GED) certificate.

All references to party affiliation include those who lean toward that party: Republicans include those who identify as Republicans and independents who say they lean toward the Republican Party, and Democrats include those who identify as Democrats and independents who say they lean toward the Democratic Party.

A person is considered to have “at least one shared child” if there is a child age 18 or younger residing in the household who is the biological child of themselves and their present spouse or partner. If a person does not have any “shared children,” but does have other children ages 18 or younger in the household – for instance, a spouse’s child from a prior marriage, an adopted child or a foster child – then the person is considered to have “child(ren) from other relationships.”

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Table of contents, polygamy is rare around the world and mostly confined to a few regions, more than half of americans say marriage is important but not essential to leading a fulfilling life, key findings on marriage and cohabitation in the u.s., 8 facts about love and marriage in america, most popular.

About Pew Research Center Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts .

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The infographic below highlights some of Dr. John Gottman’s most notable research findings on marriage and couple relationships. For a more in-depth review of the three phases of Gottman’s research with marriage and couples, continue reading.

Research findings from Dr. John Gottman.

Phase 1: The Discovery of Reliable Patterns of Interaction Discriminating the “Masters” From the “Disasters” of Relationships

In 1976, Dr. Robert Levenson and Dr. John Gottman teamed up to combine the study of emotion with psycho-physiological measurement and a video-recall method that gave us rating dial measures (still applying game theory) of how people felt during conflict. This was the new way of getting the “talk table” numbers. The research also became longitudinal. They made no predictions in the first study, but they were interested in a measure of “physiological linkage,” because a prior study showed that the skin conductance of two nurses was correlated only if they disliked one another. They thought that might be linked to negative affect in couples. Indeed it was.

They were also amazed that in their first study with 30 couples they were able to “predict” the change in marital satisfaction almost perfectly with their physiological measures. The results revealed that the more physiologically aroused couples were (in all channels, including heart rate, skin conductance, gross motor activity, and blood velocity), the more their marriages deteriorated in happiness over a three-year period, even controlling the initial level of marital satisfaction.

The rating dial and their observational coding of the interaction also “predicted” changes in relationship satisfaction. Such large correlations in the data were unprecedented. Furthermore, Gottman and Levenson had preceded the conflict conversation with a reunion conversation (in which couples talked about the events of their day before the conflict discussion), and they had followed the conflict discussion with a positive topic. Gottman and Levenson were amazed to discover that harsh startup by women in the conflict discussion was predictable by the male partner’s disinterest or irritability in the events of the day discussion. They found that the quality of the couple’s friendship, especially as maintained by men, was critical in understanding conflict. Furthermore, the ability to rebound from, or “repair” , conflict to the positive conversation became a marker of emotion regulation ability of couples.

Both Levenson and Gottman had discovered Dr. Paul Ekman and Dr. Wallace Friesen’s Facial Affect Coding System (FACS), and Gottman subsequently developed the Specific Affect Coding System (SPAFF) , which was an integration of FACS and earlier systems in the Gottman lab.

The SPAFF became the main system that Gottman used to code couples’ interaction. At first, it took 25 hours to code 15 minutes of interaction, but later Gottman was able to get the same coding done in just 45 minutes, with no loss of reliability. Gottman also began applying time-series analysis to the analysis of interaction data. He wrote, Time-Series Analysis: A Comprehensive Introduction for Social Scientists , a book on time-series analysis to explain these methods to psychologists, and developed some new methods for analyzing dominance and bi-directionality with James Ringland.

Phase 2: Prediction and the Replication of the Prediction

Soon after, Gottman and Levenson received their first grant together and began attempting to replicate their observations from the first study. The subsequent studies they conducted in their labs with colleagues eventually spanned the entire life course — with the longest of the studies following couples for 20 years, in Levenson’s Berkeley lab.

The Gottman lab at the University of Illinois also studied the linkages between marital interaction, parenting, and children’s social development with Dr. Lynn Katz, and later at the University of Washington involved studying these linkages with infants with Dr. Alyson Shapiro. Gottman developed the concept of “meta-emotion” , which is how people feel about emotion (such as specific emotions like anger), emotional expression, and emotional understanding in general. Meta-emotion mismatches between parents in that study predicted divorce with 80% accuracy.

Gottman and Levenson discovered that couples interaction had enormous stability over time (about 80% stability in conflict discussions separated by 3 years). They also discovered that most relationship problems (69%) never get resolved but are “perpetual problems” based on personality differences between partners.

In seven longitudinal studies, one with violent couples (with Neil Jacobson), the predictions replicated. Gottman could predict whether a couple would divorce with an average of over 90% accuracy, across studies using the ratio of positive to negative SPAFF codes, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling), physiology, the rating dial, and an interview they devised, the Oral History Interview , as coded by Kim Buehlman’s coding system.

Gottman could predict whether or not their stable couples would be happy or unhappy using measures of positive affect during conflict. With Dr. Jim Coan, he discovered that positive affect was used not randomly, but to physiologically soothe the partner. Gottman also discovered that in heterosexual relationships, men accepting influence from their wives was predictive of happy and stable marriages. Bob Levenson also discovered that humor was physiologically soothing and that empathy had a physiological substrate (in research with Dr. Anna Ruef), using the rating dial.

Phase 3: Theory Building, Understanding, and Prevention & Intervention

The third phase of Gottman’s research program was devoted to trying to understand the empirical predictions, and thus building and then testing theory. Ultimately, Gottman aimed to build a theory that was testable or disconfirmable.

Testing theory in the psychological field requires clinical interventions. In 1996, the Gottman lab returned to intervention research with Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman. John and Julie Gottman designed both proximal and distal change studies. In a proximal change study, one intervenes briefly with interventions designed only to make the second of two conflict discussions less divorce-prone. In one of these studies, they discovered that a 20-minute break, in which couples stopped talking and just read magazines (as their heart rates returned to baseline), dramatically changed the discussion, so that people had access to their sense of humor and affection.

Together with Julie, John Gottman started building the Sound Relationship House Theory . That theory became the basis of the design of clinical interventions for couples in John Gottman’s book,  The Marriage Clinic , and Julie Gottman’s book,  The Marriage Clinic Casebook . In August of 1996, they founded The Gottman Institute to continue to develop evidence-based approaches to improving couples therapy outcomes.

Read more about The Gottman Institute’s mission here .

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I reviewed the 36 marriage and cohabitation studies from the Journal of Family and Economic Issues articles published between 2010–2019. Nearly all of the studies used quantitative methods, and two-thirds of them used publicly available nationally-representative data. The studies fell into roughly five, unevenly sized groups: family structure, relationship quality, division of labor/employment, money management, and an “other” category. Suggestions for future research include applying some of the important questions within the articles to underrepresented groups, further examining the process of how finances and relationship quality interrelate and doing more applied and translational research.

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Financial issues and adult romantic relationships interface in many important ways. Whether in marriage or cohabitation, living with a romantic partner may modify how one approaches financial issues (e.g., Kenney 2004 ). This association may work in the other direction, too; financial issues may influence relationship quality (see Dew 2016 for a review).

Although many scholars study marriage and cohabitation, few of them study these couples within the financial contexts that surround them or the financial aspects that may influence the relationship processes themselves. The Journal of Family and Economic Issues , therefore, is a key outlet where scholars can publish studies that explore the nexus of financial issues and adult romantic relationships.

This review focuses on the 36 studies of marriage and cohabitation from 2010–2019 in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues . The editor/editorial staff of JFEI assigned these studies to me. In the first section, I provide a synopsis of the articles that I reviewed. In the second section, I discuss the future research directions that might further build this topic. For the purposes of this review, I define marriage as two adults whose union has been legally recognized by a state entity. Cohabitation, by way of contrast, generally denotes two unmarried persons living together in a sexual union. Footnote 1

Social norms and behaviors regarding family structure have shifted over the past 60 years. For example, 30% of all US households with children present were single-parent households in 2019 (United States Census Bureau 2020 ) . In 1960, the comparable statistic was 9%. Furthermore, an analysis of US data from 2011–2015 suggested that around 16% of people aged 18–44 cohabited during that time (Nugent and Daugherty 2018 ). Comparable statistics for 1960 do not exist. Governments and researchers did not ask individuals if they were cohabiting due to the social stigma attached to it at the time in the United States. Additionally, in 1960 72% of US adults were married; in 2016, the percentage has dropped to only 50% (Parker and Stepler 2017 ). I could cite similar statistics regarding changes in the average age at first marriage, the total fertility rate, and so forth.

At the same time family structures were changing, national economies all over the world fluctuated as well. In the US, manufacturing jobs decreased, and service sector jobs increased. Unionized jobs, which often provided living wages regardless of individuals’ education level, declined. Men’s wages stagnated after accounting for inflation. Many married women with young children in the home moved into the paid labor force.

Thus, although no one aspect, theme, or methodology links the 36 studies I reviewed, many of them examined issues related to family structure and/or economic changes that have occurred over the past sixty years in the US and other nations. Many researchers applied “older” questions regarding financial and family issues to newer and growing family forms. Other researchers updated the fields’ knowledge regarding previous findings. Still others examined existing family and finance process models and added additional nuance.

Research Methods of the Studies

The methods and analyses that scholars use as they examine the association between family and financial issues can strongly influence the findings. Consequently, as I reviewed the studies, I noted the analyses the authors’ used to examine their data. I also studied the data, samples, and demographic characteristics of the participants. I offer an overview of the methodology here.

Types of Analyses

As a body, the researchers used quantitative analyses more than any other type. That is, of the 36 articles, 30 used quantitative analyses. Three studies used qualitative analyses, one study used a mixed methods design, one study was a theoretical piece, and one study was an erratum.

Data, Samples, and Demographics

Of the 30 studies that used quantitative analyses, 21 used large data sets. I categorized any study as using a large data set if the sample size was at least 900 participants/couples, etc. I used this cutoff because when a study size reaches or exceeds 900 participants, single-item measures have psychometric properties similar to multi-item scales (Johnson 1993 ). All other things equal, larger sample sizes yield more precise estimates. Most of these data sets were publicly available (e.g., the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the General Social Survey), though a few were large proprietary data sets (e.g., the Survey of Marital Generosity).

Another important consideration was whether researchers studied marriage and cohabitation among underrepresented populations. Understanding the research coverage of these underrepresented groups is important and is one of the recommendations I make for future research (see below). Studies using large representative samples facilitate understanding adult romantic relationships. They may, however, miss crucial relationship or financial processes that vary within and across subgroups. Thus, I did not count these large data sets as focusing on underrepresented groups.

For the purposes of this review, I categorized a study as examining an underrepresented group if the sample was largely composed of individuals from race/ethnic minority groups, interracial couples, sexual minorities, low-income families, or from countries outside the United States. Footnote 2 Although the 21 studies that used large US national samples obviously included individuals from some of those groups, the studies did not focus on underrepresented groups. Some of the other quantitative studies used convenience sampling techniques, but still did not explicitly sample any underrepresented groups.

Using these criteria, nine of the studies I reviewed focused on underrepresented populations. Jones ( 2010 ) and Jang and Danes ( 2016 ) studied couples who were racially/ethnically intermarried. Oshio et al. ( 2013 ) used data from the General Social Surveys in Korea, Japan, and China. Evertsson and Nyman ( 2014 ) had a Swedish sample. Further, 50% of the couples in their study were in same-sex relationships. The Maclean et al. ( 2016 ) research took place in Australia, while Cantillon et al. ( 2016 ) took place in Ireland. Finally, Addo ( 2017 ), Högnäs and Williams ( 2017 ), and Jamison ( 2018 ) focused on low-income couples.

Creating Relationship Themes/Domains

As I reviewed the articles, I categorized them based on what I felt was the overarching theme of each piece. I have published many studies on relationship formation and dissolutionas well as studies examining the role of financial issues within adult romantic relationships. I have also edited two special issues in peer-reviewed journals on money and relationships and written several review articles and public scholarship pieces regarding the subject. Consequently, I used my own expertise to assign the studies to different domains. From my previous experience, I knew that studies often focus on financial issues and family structure issues (e.g., the financial consequences of divorce). I also knew that many previous studies have focused on relationship quality or process issues as they relate to couples’ finances (e.g., the association between consumer debt and relationship happiness). Finally, I knew that employment and the division of household labor (e.g., the paid labor force participation of mothers) have been important research foci in many fields for at least five decades. I established these three domains prior to categorizing the studies. After putting studies that belonged in the domains of family structure, relationship quality, and labor/employment, I examined the remaining studies. I created a fourth domain, financial management, from some of those studies. The last five studies did not fit in any of these categories or with each other.

Important Findings

Family structure.

As family forms and macro-economic characteristics have shifted, scholars have examined how these changes have influenced individuals, families, and societies. For example, one of the first studies linking changing family structure and child poverty was released in the early 1990’s (Eggebeen and Lichter 1991 ). Given the enormity of the social changes, it is not surprising that studies of family structure, whether as a predictor or as an outcome, was the domain that had the most articles in my review. These articles used family structure as either a main independent variable or as the dependent variable. Sub-themes in this area included the association between family structure and financial issues, the association between family structure and other outcomes, and marital stability. I assigned 12 articles to the category of family structure.

Many of these studies focused on how changing/new family structures related to financial issues. For example, one study researched whether, and under what conditions, men enjoyed a cohabitation premium (i.e., higher wages) relative to both single, non-cohabiting men, and married men (Mamun 2012 ). Men in cohabitations that led to marriage realized a wage premium relative to single men; men in other types of cohabitations did not. Married men enjoyed the largest wage premium.

Painter and Vespa ( 2012 ) also examined financial issues regarding newer family forms by comparing rates of net-worth gain between those who married without cohabiting first, and those who married after cohabitation. Interestingly, the rate of net-worth gain was higher for those who cohabited prior to marriage. Painter and Vespa studied the financial changes closely and found that those who married following a cohabitation had more debt when they married, and so they could increase their net-worth more quickly by paying debt down. Further, those who had cohabited increased their home-equity more quickly.

As an alternative to studying old questions using newer family forms, some of the studies that researched the association between family structure and finances added nuance to previous findings. For example, Tamborini et al. ( 2012 ) estimated the changes in women’s labor force participation before and after divorce. Although this question has been studied for decades, these scholars studied additional moderators that might influence the association among divorce, changes in women’s labor force participation, and changes in earnings. They found that education was positively associated with earnings gains. Having a child after the divorce was negatively associated.

In a similar study, Frech et al. ( 2017 ) investigated the association between divorce and women’s net worth. In the initial models, divorce reduced women’s overall net-worth as previous studies have demonstrated. However, after using advanced modeling techniques to account for selection into divorce and selection into remarriage, the difference between stably married wives and divorced wives who had remarried disappeared. The divorce difference was still present for divorced women who had not remarried and remarried women who went through another divorce.

Sharma ( 2015 ) researched wealth change for one of the fastest growing group of divorced persons–individuals who are 50 years or older. This is an important population to study because the divorce rate has steadily decreased for the past 40 years except for those who are 50 years or older (Allred 2019 ). For example, for women aged 50 or older, the divorce rate per 1000 married women has increased from 4.9 in 1990 to 10.3 in 2017 (Allred 2019 ). Sharma found that both older men and women lost money following a divorce; the average loss was between $369,000 and $376,000. Interestingly, the difference between men’s and women’s loss was not statistically significant, unlike other studies of couples at younger ages (e.g., Zagorsky 2005 ).

Other studies expanded the field by combining novel approaches with timely new questions. For example, using qualitative methods and a diverse sample, Jamison ( 2018 ) examined participants’ transitions into and out of residential cohabitation (i.e., living in the same domicile in an unmarried sexual union), as well as into and out of relationships (i.e., considering oneself in a couple). The innovative insight of this piece is that residential cohabitation and one’s romantic relationship may or may not overlap, especially among low-income cohabiters. Indeed, sometimes individuals would stop a residential cohabitation for various reasons, while still considering themselves a romantic couple. Other times, individuals who had been a couple in the past, but who had broken up, would reunite as a couple and as residential cohabiters. Jamison’s ( 2018 ) qualitative study captured the fluidity of these relationships.

The use of novel approaches extended to policy issues. MacLean et al. ( 2016 ) used a series of hypothetical vignettes to assess Australian participants’ views of whether, and under what conditions, step-fathers should financially support their step-children. They found that marriage and the employment status of the step-children’s mother raised people’s expectations that a man would financially support his step-children. Lerman et al. ( 2018 ) investigated variation in state-level economic indicators as a function of the proportion of married adults and/or the proportion of married parents. Their results suggested that states that had higher proportions of married adults and/or married parents also had higher per capita GDP levels, equivalent-adult adjusted median household incomes, and median personal incomes. Further, these states had lower child poverty levels.

Other studies examined family structure issues, without focusing on financial outcomes or predictors. For example, Jones ( 2010 ) assessed the stability of interracial marriages and found that most stability differences between interracial marriages and racially homogenous marriages attenuated after controlling for demographic characteristics. Kendall ( 2011 ) found no difference across state level divorce rates based on their level of broadband internet penetrations. Using the General Social Survey (US), Horner ( 2014 ) found that women’s happiness declined when their state moved to a low-barrier-to-divorce regime. Men, by way of contrast, increased their happiness. Hussey et al. ( 2016 ) studied the effects of moving from a two-parent household to a one-parent household on adolescent outcomes. They used propensity score matching to partly mitigate selection issues and found negative effects in the short term, medium term, and long term.

These many studies demonstrate the utility of both examining “old” research questions in the context of growing family forms and of striving to add nuance to “old” findings. For example, finding a male cohabitation premium among only men who transitioned to marriage (Mamun 2012 ) indicates that cohabiting unions are not monolithic relationships. This finding also further reinforces the link previous studies have found between marriage and upward economic mobility. Finding that selection accounts for wealth differences between never-divorced and divorced-but-remarried women (Frech et al. 2017 ), generates a new avenue of research. Specifically, this finding suggests that we should examine the characteristics that account for non-divorced women’s higher net worth in a bivariate analyses, but that disappear upon controlling for selection. As family forms continue to change, scholars will likely conduct similar studies.

Relationship Quality

The name of the journal suggests a natural fit for studies of the association between financial issues and adult romantic relationship quality. Eight of the eleven articles I assigned to this domain focused on the interface between financial issues and relationship quality. Three others focused on relationship quality and other issues (e.g., pornography). These studies highlight researchers’ continued interest in the predictors of relationship quality. This interest in unsurprising, given how strongly relationship happiness and individual well-being are correlated (Spuhler and Dew 2019 ).

Four studies examined the association between financial issues and relationship quality using either a unique population and/or a unique predictor. The first, Schramm and William Harris ( 2011 ), used data from low-income couples to study the association between income, government assistance, and different aspects of marital quality. Both receiving government assistance and having an income less than $20,000 was associated with lower marital satisfaction, commitment, and higher levels of divorce-proneness, negative marital interactions, and feeling trapped. An interaction did emerge, however. Couples who had an income level between $20,000–$40,000 and received government assistance reported higher levels of marital satisfaction and commitment than couples with the same income level, but who did not receive government assistance.

Using data from the married women in the 1979 National Longitudinal Study of Youth, Britt and Huston ( 2012 ) studied the association between financial arguments and marital quality. Not surprisingly, they found that the frequency of financial arguments was negatively associated with women’s reported marital satisfaction. Interestingly, by using the longitudinal aspect of the data, they also found that when women reported increased financial arguments over time, they reported lower marital satisfaction. Finally, higher levels of financial conflict at the beginning of marriage was associated with greater likelihood of divorce.

Klein’s ( 2017 ) study tested the association between financial issues and relationship quality and used a unique predictor–changes in home values. Negative price shocks (i.e., declines in home values) were unrelated to the hazard of divorce. However, positive price shocks (i.e., increases in home values) did negatively predict the hazard of divorce. These positive price shocks needed to last at least four years to reduce the likelihood of divorce, though.

LeBaron et al. ( 2018 ) was likewise unique in that they examined how materialism was associated with marital satisfaction. Materialism was negatively associated with marital satisfaction. One’s feelings of importance about marriage partially mediated the association. That is, materialism was related to decreased feelings of marital importance; marital importance was positively related to marital satisfaction.

Many of the studies of the association between financial issues and relationship quality over the past three years have focused on the family stress model of economic pressure and marital distress (Conger et al. 1990 ), or simply “family stress model.” Since its inception in 1990, many scholars have used this model to research the association between negative financial events, feelings of economic pressure, and marital quality. The family stress model suggests that when individuals feel economic pressure, they respond affectively with greater levels of anxiety, depression, and hostility. This in turn increases marital distress (Conger et al. 1990 ).

Ross et al. ( 2017 ), tested the family stress model (Conger et al. 1990 ) in the context of military couples. This research topic is important, given the unique pressures that military couples face (Park 2011 ). Ross et al. ( 2017 ) study is the first of which I know to use the family stress model to examine military couples. Their findings suggested that husbands’ economic pressure was associated with receiving less warmth and greater hostility from their wives. Wives’ economic pressure was likewise related to reports of receiving less warmth from their husbands and increased hostility. Further, wives’ economic pressure was associated with their own reports of giving their husbands less warmth.

Dew and Jackson ( 2018 ) and Dew et al. ( 2018 ) also used the family stress model and assessed relationship attitudes and processes to determine what factors might have helped protect married couples from the difficulties of the 2007–2009 Recession. Both studies used the same national data set of married couples who were surveyed in 2009 shortly after the end of the Recession. Dew and Jackson ( 2018 ) found that relationship maintenance behaviors moderated the association between feelings of economic pressure and marital quality for wives. That is, husbands’ performance of relationship maintenance behaviors, such as doing small favors for their spouses, protected wives’ marital satisfaction from declining despite wives’ feelings of economic pressure.

Dew et al. ( 2018 ) modeled responses to a specific question that asked participants whether the recession had increased their marital commitment. Factors that were positively associated with both wives and husbands stating that the recession had increased their commitment including religious marital sanctification, relationship maintenance behaviors, and financial support from families and friends. Interestingly, the more economic pressure both wives and husbands felt, the more likely they were to say that the Recession increased their marital commitment.

Wheeler et al. ( 2019 ) was the final study that used the family stress model. These researchers examined an additional mediator in the model using longitudinal data. Relational aggression, such as social sabotage and love withdrawal, mediated the association between feelings of economic pressure and marital quality. Wheeler et al. found these associations happening both within and across longitudinal waves. In other words, negative affect is not the only mechanism through which feelings of economic pressure incite marital distress. Rather, worse relationship behaviors might arise because of economic pressure. These behaviors might then increase marital distress.

These four studies contribute to the family stress model by adding specificity while, paradoxically, also broadening the potential relationship processes that may occur when couples experience negative financial events. Ross et al. ( 2017 ) drew attention to a specific family context (i.e., military families). By doing so, they uncovered important sex differences as it relates to actor effects in the family stress model. Broader studies of the family stress model have not often found these differences.

The other four studies suggested additional mediators and moderators that researchers have previously not studied within the family stress model. For example, Wheeler et al. ( 2019 ) studied a very specific relationship process, i.e., relationship aggression, as a potential mediator in the family stress model, and found that it was important. Dew and Jackson ( 2018 ) and Dew et al. ( 2018 ) found additional protective factors that helped couples weather the 2007–2009 Recession with their marital quality intact.

The first study of relationship quality that did not deal with financial issues was Doran and Price ( 2014 ). These researchers used the General Social Survey (US) to study the association between pornography use and marital quality. Their data were drawn from the currently-married GSS participants to test some of the hypotheses, and both the currently-married and ever-married participants for other hypotheses. Their findings on the associations were too numerous to list specifically, but, in general, they found a negative association between pornography use and marital quality. For example, currently-married individuals were less happy in their marriages if they had watched an X-rated movie in the prior year. Further, pornography use decreased the association between the frequency of sex and overall life happiness for men.

The second study that investigated relationship quality without also including financial issues was a methodological piece. Leppel ( 2015a ) illustrated a new technique “Generalized Ordered Probit with Selectivity” (GOPS) to estimate marital happiness. GOPS is useful when a dependent variable is discrete (i.e., not continuous), ordered, and incorporates information that may also be associated with selection into or out of a specific state. Leppel made the argument that marital happiness ratings are an example of this type of dependent variable and that the GOPS is a superior estimation method relative to conventional ordered probit and generalized ordered probit without selectivity. The journal published an erratum (Leppel 2015b ), because some of the equations were misprinted in the original study.

Dew and Tulane ( 2015 ) was the third study that did not examine the association between financial issues and relationship quality. Instead, they studied how interactive media was associated with relationship quality in a national sample of married dyads. A negative linear association existed between husbands’ social networking website use and wives’ and husbands’ marital quality. Specifically, the more time husbands spent on social networking websites, the less maritally happy wives were, the more conflict both spouses reported, and the lower marital stability both spouses perceived. Time spent playing video games was only problematic when differences in time use were considered. The greater the difference between the spouses in terms of video game usage, the lower they reported their marital quality, on average.

Synthesizing these studies was difficult. However, together they do suggest that relationship quality is a multifaceted construct that also has many predictors–from media use, to governmental aid, to personal attitudes. Many of the predictors tested might seem somewhat pedestrian or prosaic. However, they are also the topics that daily concern families daily (Daly 2003 ). Further, given that the studies that tested the association between financial issues and relationship quality averaged almost one per year may suggest that this area of relationship quality research continues to possess importance.

Labor and Employment

Like family structure, labor force participation and the division of household labor have changed over the past seventy years. Married mothers participate in paid labor much more than in the past whereas men engage in household chores and childcare more. Researchers have studied how these changes have influenced family life.

Four of the studies I reviewed related to labor and employment. One of the studies examined paid labor force participation. Specifically, Quinn and Rubb ( 2011 ) researched the bidirectional association between being overeducated (i.e., having more education than one’s employment merits), labor force participation, and moving house. Both wives’ and husbands’ overeducation was associated with the likelihood of moving. Interestingly, moving, in turn, was associated with an increased likelihood of wives leaving the paid labor force, but was associated with a decreased likelihood of a husband being overeducated.

The other three studies researched the association between household division of labor and relationship happiness. Oshio et al. ( 2013 ) studied this association in China, Japan, and Korea. They found no aspect in common across the three countries except that good health was positively associated with marital satisfaction. In China, dual-earning couples were happier. In Korea, the more housework wives or husbands had to do, the less happy they were in their relationship. Finally, income positively predicted marital satisfaction in Japan and Korea.

Britt and Roy ( 2014 ) used the NLSY 1986 cohort to assess the relationship between the household division of labor and marital happiness. They found that perceived unfairness in the housework division was negatively associated with having high levels of marital satisfaction for wives, but not husbands. Arguments about money and affection were negatively associated with marital quality for both wives and husbands.

The final paper on division of labor and relationship quality was a theoretical and econometric piece. Skåtun ( 2017 ), outlined two types of marital bargaining. Coasean bargaining behavior within marriage occurs if all marital/family goods (whether tangible or intangible) were shared between spouses and they could transfer utility to each other without cost. Non-Coasean bargaining behavior within marriage would occur if the marital/family goods were not all shared. Skåtun asserted that the question of which of these two forms marital bargaining takes is unsettled in the literature, and that paid labor force participation behavior following divorce might help answer it.

Not many studies were in this category. It may be that scholars viewed other types of journals, such as economics journals and gender studies journals, as outlets more likely to publish their studies. It may also be because another review covered employment and wages. Labor and employment studies will continue to be important, however, as macroeconomic conditions continue to change.

Family Money Management

The actual behavior that families use to manage their financial resources is an important topic because managing these resources is associated with families being able to meet their goals (National Council on Family Relations 2014 ). Further, financial products, instruments, and regulations have grown increasingly complex over time. This trend toward more financial complexity may influence how individuals and families manage their money.

Four studies examined family money management. The first study used qualitative methodology to discover how stable, happy couples engaged in money management (Skogrand et al. 2011 ). A phenomenological analysis revealed that couples typically had one spouse managing the day-to-day aspect of their finances, that they exercised financial trust and communication, that they had little-to-no debt, and that they stayed within their financial means.

Evertsson and Nyman ( 2014 ) also used qualitative methods to examine family money management. They scrutinized how cohabiting and living-apart-together couples who claimed they manage their money independently actually manage their money. Evertsson and Nyman found that many couples had systems in place to handle joint expenses. However, sometimes the joint expenses made the distinctions between “my,” “your,” and “our” money less clear. Furthermore, these couples would sometimes intentionally engage in joint consumption as a symbol of their union. In addition to the strong qualitative analysis, this study was unique in that it included many same-sex couples.

Cantillon et al. ( 2016 ) researched predictors of individual deprivation (e.g., doing without a substantial meal in the past two weeks, feeling unable to spend money on oneself) vis-à-vis family money management. They found that having children in the household was associated with being in the “female-only” deprivation group, while female-only employment/income was associated with being in the “male-only” deprivation group. Many family characteristics were associated with being in the “both deprived” group, including income (negative), full income pooling (positive), and children in the home (positive).

Finally, Addo ( 2017 ) examined an old family money management question using a newer population. Family scholars have examined how married couples divided the money that came into their households (e.g., Pahl 1995 ). But Addo studied the bidirectional association between the ways in which cohabiting couples integrated their finances and their plans for marriage. Those cohabiting couples with definite plans to marry were much more likely to have joint bank accounts, credit card accounts, and mortgages. Further, the more joint practices cohabiting couples engaged in, the more likely they would marry.

Other Topics

Three studies did not fit any categorization. Hall and Willoughby ( 2016 ) examined the importance that emerging adults felt for different roles (e.g., career, parenthood). The found that these attitudes were linked to both future expectations and behaviors. For example, those in the child/marriage centered group and marriage centered group had less sexual experience than young adults in other groups.

Jang and Danes ( 2016 ) studied the quantity of social capital to which intermarried couples had access. Social capital are resources, whether tangible or intangible, that individuals and couples can access based on their social networks. A methodological strength of this study was that the authors examined race, ethnicity, and national origin rather than just looking at one source of heterogeneity. Jang and Danes found that interracially married couples reported less access to social capital; this was not the case for interethnic or international couples.

Högnäs and Williams ( 2017 ) assessed fatherhood identity among non-resident low-income men. A negative association existed between their partners’ extended family involvement and the strength of men’s fatherhood identity. That is, the more the women’s extended family was involved in the raising and care of the child, the less the men reported feeling like fathers.

Finally, Shamblen et al. ( 2018 ) evaluated a program meant to strengthen marriage and family life. They found the program had modest effects for the participants in some life domains, but no effects in other domains. They also estimated the return on investment (ROI) by comparing the cost of implementing their curricula and counseling regime with the benefits. Under most considerations, the ROI for the program was positive.

Future Directions

One of the ways researchers might grow the boundaries of this field is in continuing to apply important research questions we have already investigated to new relationship structures (i.e., beyond cohabitation). That is, by the editor’s assignment, my review covered marriage and cohabitation research that appeared in the journal over the past ten years. All 36 papers were strong representations of marriage and cohabitation research – at least for heterosexual individuals. Gay and lesbian couples were not well represented in the literature I reviewed. Only one study, Evertsson and Nyman ( 2014 ), had a sample where at least 50% of the participants were in same sex relationships. Of course, part of the reasons for this lack of research arises from the fact that same sex marriage was only legal in seven countries prior to 2010, Footnote 3 the beginning of my review period. As of April 2020, 29 countries have legalized same sex marriages. Because many more countries legally recognize same sex cohabitations and marriages now than in the past, it would be important to study these relationships–particularly regarding financial issues.

Furthermore, it is the case that over the past 10 years, other types of adult romantic relationships besides marriage and cohabitation have emerged and are slowly gaining cultural mainstream acceptance. For example, consensual non-monogamy (i.e., a romantic and/or sexual relationship with more than one partner in which all partners consent to the relationship), has become as a topic of mainstream conversation.

Inviting individuals and couples in these newer family forms to participate in research and studying them, generally, may be difficult. Participants may be hard to find simply because there are not many in the population. For example, a recent national study revealed that only 12% of adults in the US reported ever having been in a consensually non-monogamous relationship, and only 3% currently reside in such a relationship (Hawkins and Smith 2019 ). Furthermore, studying heterosexual marriage, researchers could take the number of spouses, gender configurations, and legal issues within the marriage for granted. This is simply no longer the case. Having so much variance in family structure and smaller groups of newer family forms certainly complicates statistical models.

In addition to studying underrepresented forms of adult romantic relationships, researchers who study marriage, cohabitation, and financial issues would serve the field and the public well by specifically studying groups that research has historically underrepresented. This includes studying different race and ethnic groups, and low-income families (beyond traditional “poverty outcomes” research). This also includes conducting more research with samples drawn from outside the United States.

The suggestion to focus on underrepresented populations may be even more important given the financial difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic during 2020. For example, Dew and Jackson (2019) found relationship attitudes and processes that helped protect couples’ relationship quality during the 2007–2009 Recession using a national sample. However, it is unknown whether these findings apply to underrepresented families during the current macro-financial problems because Dew and Jackson did not run any interactions by race or income.

Expanding Studies on Financial and Relational Process

Another way to grow this field is to more closely examine the process of how financial issues and relationship quality interrelate. In other words, while many studies have shown that financial issues and relationship outcomes relate, not as many have investigated how and why that is the case. Our understanding of marriage, cohabitation, and other romantic relationship forms would expand if we understood the role of money within them.

Indeed, many of the studies I reviewed regarding relationship quality uncovered links between financial issues and relationship quality. For example, LeBaron et al. ( 2018 ) tested whether attitudes about marriage mediated the negative association between materialism and marital quality. Further, Wheeler et al. ( 2019 ) tested some intriguing potential mediators (e.g., love withdrawal) of the association between economic pressure and marital quality within the family stress model.

A number of new directions might help this area of study flourish. First, studies of the interface between financial issues and relationship quality would benefit by greater efforts in theory construction. The family stress model is an undeniably excellent model that has generated much research. However, studies in this area cannot grow without moving beyond the family stress model. The association between financial issues and relationship quality encompasses more than negative financial events and feelings of economic pressure.

Second, nearly all the studies in this area have the causal direction running from financial issues to relationship quality. But a few economic studies suggest that the opposite direction of causality is possible, even likely. That is, it may be that a strong marital or cohabiting relationship makes sound financial management behaviors more likely. Individuals with a strong relationship are more likely to invest in it (Becker 1981 ) – including by investing in their joint financial futures. Studies have shown that couples spend down wealth or hold less of it as they approach divorce relative to couples who are stable (Finke and Pierce 2006 ; Zagorsky 2005 ). Consequently, a relatively untapped area of research is to make great use of causal and longitudinal data to detangle issues of causal direction in the association between financial issues and relationship quality.

The last aspect of process that I recommend for future study is to understand the attitudinal, relational, and behavioral aspects that protect romantic couples during financial difficulties. Almost all couples will experience negative financial events and/or feelings of economic pressure. Knowing what individual partners, spouses, and couples can do to maintain their relationships would benefit researchers, practitioners, and lay families. Some of the studies I reviewed did exactly that (e.g., Dew and Jackson 2018 ). However, much work remains to be done in this area.

More Applied/Translational Research

Related to my last point, a final call for future marriage and cohabitation research is to generate more applied and translational research. Only one of the studies I reviewed went beyond basic research (Shamblen et al. 2018 ). Interestingly, many of the studies that I reviewed covered prosaic, that is every day or mundane, issues with which couples regularly struggle. I believe that is one of the strengths of the Journal of Family and Economic Issues . It might not be difficult to take some of the issues covered in this review – the division of household labor, money management, etc. – and begin working on applied and translational research. Although the Journal of Family and Economic Issues is not a practice journal, applied and translational research would make the journal more widely relevant.

One of the studies reviewed (Jamison 2018 ), showed that cohabitation is a fluid status and may not necessarily involve the couple living together in the same household all the time.

It may seem odd to define samples from outside the United States as “underrepresented.” However, of the 36 articles I reviewed, only 4 – just slightly over 10% – used data from participants who did not live in the United States.

In the United States, same sex marriage was not legal in all states until June 2015.

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Jeffrey Dew is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution. The Wheatley Institution did not directly contribute any funding toward this manuscript.

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Dew, J. Ten Years of Marriage and Cohabitation Research in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues. J Fam Econ Iss 42 (Suppl 1), 52–61 (2021).

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City Journal

Why marriage is good for you.

W hen Americans debate the value of marriage, most attention focuses on the potential harm to children of divorce or illegitimacy, and for good reason. Mountains of research tell us that children reared outside of intact marriages are much more likely than other kids to slip into poverty, become victims of child abuse, fail at school and drop out, use illegal drugs, launch into premature sexual activity, become unwed teen mothers, divorce, commit suicide and experience other signs of mental illness, become physically ill, and commit crimes and go to jail. On average, children reared outside of marriage are less successful in their careers, even after controlling not only for income but also for parental conflict.

Yes, marriage protects children. And yes, marriage therefore protects taxpayers and society from a broad and deep set of costs, personal and communal. But there is another case for marriage, equally significant, that you probably haven't heard. Marriage is a powerful creator and sustainer of human and social capital for adults as well as children, about as important as education when it comes to promoting the health, wealth, and well-being of adults and communities. For most Americans, this is news. When it comes to adults, the case for lifelong marriage has been framed in exclusively moral, spiritual, and emotional terms: one side argues for personal liberation from marriage, the other urges parents to sacrifice for God's and/or the kids' sake.

These are important considerations to be sure. Parents surely should be willing to make appropriate sacrifices for their kids' sake. But framing the marriage debate solely in those terms obscures as much as it reveals. It misses the profound benefits that lasting marriage confers on adults. And it overestimates considerably the likelihood that divorce will, in fact, lead to greater happiness for the individual.

R ecently, I had the opportunity to review the scientific evidence on the consequences of marriage for adults with University of Chicago scholar Linda J. Waite for our new book, The Case for Marriage . What I found surprised me. Quietly, with little fanfare, a broad and deep body of scientific literature has been accumulating that affirms what Genesis teaches: it is not good for man to be alone—no, nor woman neither. In virtually every way that social scientists can measure, married people do much better than the unmarried or divorced: they live longer, healthier, happier, sexier, and more affluent lives.

How big a difference does marriage make? If David Letterman were to compile a Top Ten list for marriage, it might look something like this:


10. IT'S SAFER . Marriage lowers the risk that both men and women will become victims of violence, including domestic violence. A 1994 Justice Department report, based on the National Crime Victimization Survey, found that single and divorced women were four to five times more likely to be victims of violence in any given year than wives; bachelors were four times more likely to be violent-crime victims than husbands. Two-thirds of acts of violence against women committed by intimate partners were not committed by husbands but by boyfriends (whether live-in or not) or former husbands or boyfriends. As one scholar sums up the relevant research: "Regardless of methodology, the studies yielded similar results: cohabitors engage in more violence than spouses." Linda Waite conducted an analysis of the National Survey of Families and Households for our new book. She found that, even after controlling for education, race, age, and gender, people who live together are still three times more likely to say their arguments got physical (such as kicking, hitting, or shoving) in the past year than married couples.

9. IT CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE . Married people live longer and healthier lives. The power of marriage is particularly evident in late middle age. When Linda Waite and a colleague, for example, analyzed mortality differentials in a very large, nationally representative sample, they found an astonishingly large "marriage gap" in longevity: nine out of ten married guys who are alive at 48 will make it to age 65, compared with just six in ten comparable single guys (controlling for race, education, and income). For women, the protective benefits of marriage are also powerful, though not quite as large. Nine out of ten wives alive at age 48 will live to be senior citizens, compared with just eight out of ten divorced and single women.

In fact, according to statisticians Bernard Cohen and I-Sing Lee, who compiled a catalog of relative mortality risks, "being unmarried is one of the greatest risks that people voluntarily subject themselves to." Having heart disease, for example, reduces a man's life expectancy by just under six years, while being unmarried chops almost ten years off a man's life. This is not just a selection effect: even controlling for initial health status, sick people who are married live longer than their unmarried counterparts. Having a spouse, for example, lowers a cancer patient's risk of dying from the disease as much as being in an age category ten years younger. A recent study of outcomes for surgical patients found that just being married lowered a patient's risk of dying in the hospital. For perhaps more obvious reasons, the risk a hospital patient will be discharged to a nursing home was two and a half times greater if the patient was unmarried. Scientists who have studied immune functioning in the laboratory find that happily married couples have better-functioning immune systems. Divorced people, even years after the divorce, show much lower levels of immune function.

8. IT CAN SAVE YOUR KID'S LIFE . Children lead healthier, longer lives if parents get and stay married. Adults who fret about second-hand smoke and drunk driving would do well to focus at least some of their attention on this point. In one long-term study that followed a sample of highly advantaged children (middle-class whites with IQs of at least 135) up through their seventies, a parent's divorce knocked four years off the adult child's life expectancy. Forty-year-olds from divorced homes were three times more likely to die from all causes than 40-year-olds whose parents stayed married.

7. YOU WILL EARN MORE MONEY . Men today tend to think of marriage as a consumption item—a financial burden. But a broad and deep body of scientific literature suggests that for men especially, marriage is a productive institution—as important as education in boosting a man's earnings. In fact, getting a wife may increase an American male's salary by about as much as a college education. Married men make, by some estimates, as much as 40 percent more money than comparable single guys, even after controlling for education and job history. The longer a man stays married, the higher the marriage premium he receives. Wives' earnings also benefit from marriage, but they decline when motherhood enters the picture. Childless white wives get a marriage wage premium of 4 percent, and black wives earn 10 percent more than comparable single women.

6. DID I MENTION YOU'LL GET MUCH RICHER? Married people not only make more money, they manage money better and build more wealth together than either would alone. At identical income levels, for example, married people are less likely to report "economic hardship" or trouble paying basic bills. The longer you stay married, the more assets you build; by contrast, length of cohabitation has no relationship to wealth accumulation. On the verge of retirement, the average married couple has accumulated assets worth about $410,000, compared with $167,000 for the never-married and $154,000 for the divorced. Couples who stayed married in one study saw their assets increase twice as fast as those who had remained divorced over a five-year period.

5. YOU'LL TAME HIS CHEATIN' HEART (HERS, TOO) . Marriage increases sexual fidelity. Cohabiting men are four times more likely to cheat than husbands, and cohabiting women are eight times more likely to cheat than wives. Marriage is also the only realistic promise of permanence in a romantic relationship. Just one out of ten cohabiting couples are still cohabiting after five years. By contrast, 80 percent of couples marrying for the first time are still married five years later, and close to 60 percent (if current divorce rates continue) will marry for life. One British study found that biological parents who marry are three times more likely still to be together two years later than biological two-parent families who cohabit, even after controlling for maternal age, education, economic hardship, previous relationship failure, depression, and relationship quality. Marriage may be riskier than it once was, but when it comes to making love last, there is still no better bet.

4. YOU WON'T GO BONKERS . Marriage is good for your mental health. Married men and women are less depressed, less anxious, and less psychologically distressed than single, divorced, or widowed Americans. By contrast, getting divorced lowers both men's and women's mental health, increasing depression and hostility, and lowering one's self-esteem and sense of personal mastery and purpose in life.

And this is not just a statistical illusion: careful researchers who have tracked individuals as they move toward marriage find that it is not just that happy, healthy people marry; instead, getting married gives individuals a powerful mental health boost. Nadine Marks and James Lambert looked at changes in the psychological health of a large sample of Americans in the late eighties and early nineties. They measured psychological well-being at the outset and then watched what happened to individuals over the next years as they married, remained single, or divorced. When people married, their mental health improved—consistently and substantially. When people divorced, they suffered substantial deterioration in mental and emotional well-being, including increases in depression and declines in reported happiness. Those who divorced over this period also reported a lower sense of personal mastery, less positive relations with others, less sense of purpose in life, and lower levels of self-acceptance than their married peers did.

Married men are only half as likely as bachelors and one-third as likely as divorced guys to take their own lives. Wives are also much less likely to commit suicide than single, divorced, or widowed women. Married people are much less likely to have problems with alcohol abuse or illegal drugs. In a recent national survey, one out of four single men ages 19 to 26 say their drinking causes them problems at work or problems with aggression, compared with just one out of seven married guys this age.

3. IT WILL MAKE YOU HAPPY . For most people, the joys of the single life and of divorce are overrated. Overall, 40 percent of married people, compared with about a quarter of singles or cohabitors, say they are "very happy" with life in general. Married people are also only about half as likely as singles or cohabitors to say they are unhappy with their lives.

How happy are the divorced? If people divorce in order to be happy, as we are often told, the majority should demand their money back. Just 18 percent of divorced adults say they are "very happy," and divorced adults are twice as likely as married folk to say they are "not too happy" with life in general. Only a minority of divorcing adults go on to make marriages that are happier than the one they left. "Divorce or be miserable," certain cultural voices tell us, but, truth be told, "Divorce and be miserable" is at least as likely an outcome.

This is not just an American phenomenon. One recent study by Steven Stack and J. Ross Eshleman of 17 developed nations found that "married persons have a significantly higher level of happiness than persons who are not married," even after controlling for gender, age, education, children, church attendance, financial satisfaction, and self-reported health. Further, "the strength of the association between being married and being happy is remarkably consistent across nations." Marriage boosted financial satisfaction and health. But being married conferred a happiness advantage over and above its power to improve the pocketbook and the health chart. Cohabitation, by contrast, did not increase financial satisfaction or perceived health, and the boost to happiness from having a live-in lover was only about a quarter of that of being married. Another large study, of 100,000 Norwegians, found that, with both men and women, "the married have the highest level of subjective well-being, followed by the widowed." Even long-divorced people who cohabited were not any happier than singles.

2. YOUR KIDS WILL LOVE YOU MORE . Divorce weakens the bonds between parents and children over the long run. Adult children of divorce describe relationships with both their mother and their father less positively, on average, and they are about 40 percent less likely than adults from intact marriages to say they see either parent at least several times a week.

1. YOU'LL HAVE BETTER SEX, MORE OFTEN . Despite the lurid Sex in the City marketing that promises singles erotic joys untold, both husbands and wives are more likely to report that they have an extremely satisfying sex life than are singles or cohabitors. (Divorced women were the least likely to have a sex life they found extremely satisfying emotionally.) For one thing, married people are more likely to have a sex life. Single men are 20 times more likely, and single women ten times more likely, not to have had sex even once in the past year than the married. (Almost a quarter of single guys and 30 percent of single women lead sexless lives.)

Married people are also the most likely to report a highly satisfying sex life. Wives, for example, are almost twice as likely as divorced and never-married women to have a sex life that a) exists and b) is extremely satisfying emotionally. Contrary to popular lore, for men, having a wife beats shacking up by a wide margin: 50 percent of husbands say sex with their partner is extremely satisfying physically, compared with 39 percent of cohabiting men.

H ow can a piece of paper work such miracles? For surprisingly, the piece of paper, and not just the personal relationship, matters a great deal. People who live together, for the most part, don't reap the same kinds of benefits that men and women who marry do. Something about marriage as a social institution—a shared aspiration and a public, legal vow—gives wedlock the power to change individuals' lives.

By increasing confidence that this partnership will last, marriage allows men and women to specialize—to take on those parts of life's tasks, from developing an interesting social life to getting money out of insurance companies, that one person does better or enjoys more than the other. Though this specialization is often along traditional gender lines, it doesn't have to be. Even childless married couples benefit from splitting up the work. Married households have twice the talent, twice the time, and twice the labor pool of singles. Over time, as spouses specialize, each actually produces more in both market and non-market goods than singles who have to shoulder all of life's tasks on their own.

But because marriage is a partnership in the whole of life, backed up by family, community, and religious values, marriage can do what economic partnerships don't: give a greater sense of meaning and purpose to life (a reason to exercise or cut back on booze, work harder, and to keep plugging even in the middle of those times when the marriage may not feel gratifying at all). Married people are both responsible for and responsible to another human being, and both halves of that dynamic lead the married to live more responsible, fruitful, and satisfying lives. Marriage is a transformative act, changing the way two people look at each other, at the future, and at their roles in society. And it changes the way significant others—from family to congregation to insurance companies and the IRS—look at and treat that same couple. Sexual fidelity, an economic union, a parenting alliance, the promise of care that transcends day-to-day emotions: all these are what give a few words mumbled before a clergyman or judge the power to change lives.

What proportion of unhappily married couples who stick it out stay miserable? The latest data show that within five years, just 12 percent of very unhappily married couples who stick it out are still unhappy; 70 percent of the unhappiest couples now describe their marriage as "very" or "quite" happy.

Just as good marriages go bad, bad marriages go good. And they have a better chance of doing so in a society that recognizes the value of marriage than one that sings the statistically dubious joys of divorce.

Autumn 2000

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The Journal of Marriage and Family ( JMF ), published by the National Council on Family Relations, is the leading research journal in the family field and has been so for over sixty years. JMF features original research and theory, research interpretation and reviews, and critical discussion concerning all aspects of marriage, other forms of close relationships, and families. The Journal also publishes book reviews. Contributors to JMF come from a diversity of fields including anthropology, demography, economics, history, psychology, and sociology, as well as interdisciplinary fields such as human development and family sciences. JMF publishes original theory and research using the variety of methods reflective of the full range of social sciences, including quantitative, qualitative, and multimethod designs. Integrative reviews as well as reports on methodological and statistical advances are also welcome. JMF is issued quarterly, in February, May, August, and November of each year. Each issue averages 284 pages in length. World wide, its circulation is more than 6,200 copies.

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