October 11, 2017

Marital Tension and Divorce

By Brooke Helppie-McFall

Upset couple sitting on the bedIt’s not uncommon for married people to say that having a “happy marriage” is a major goal in their lives. However, recent psychological research has shown that negative aspects of relationships tend to have a greater effect than positive aspects in predicting divorce, and negativity is not just the opposite of happiness.

In a recent study, SRC’s Kira Birditt and Toni Antonucci, with co-authors Wylie Wan and Terri Orbuch, use 16 years of data from the Early Years of Marriage Project (EYM) to examine marital tension patterns among married couples, as well as their implications for divorce.

The authors also examined whether marital tension was an important predictor of divorce in a way that indicates that it is not simply the opposite of marital happiness. Interestingly, after controlling for marital happiness, husbands’ reports of marital tension weren’t related to divorce, but increasing and higher levels of reported tension by wives were associated with higher levels of divorce, especially if their husbands’ levels were not also high. Given that women are more likely to file for divorce than are men, this is consistent with growing levels of negativity being the mechanism for causing divorce. The finding that a mismatch between husbands’ and wives’ marital tension is particularly important for predicting divorce makes particular sense if one thinks about the lower tension reported by some husbands than their wives as indicating that the husband has disengaged or isn’t motivated to improve the marriage.

Birditt,Kira S.;Wan,Wylie H.;Orbuch,Terri L.;Antonucci,Toni C. (2017) The Development of Marital Tension: Implications for Divorce Among Married Couples. Developmental Psychology. 53(10):1995-2006. doi: 10.1037/dev0000379