Blog

April 9, 2019

Marital Tension and Marital Well-being

By Marina Larkina

couple with speech bubble puzzle pieces which don't fit

You might remember these famous words of Leo Tolstoy in his book Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” You might also have no difficulties in remembering illustrative examples of unhappy marital relationships either from your personal experiences or your friends and relatives. In a recent publication in the Journal of Family Psychology, Jasmine Manalel, Kira Birditt, Terri Orbuch, and Toni Antonucci from SRC took a broader view on marital relationship negativity by exploring how marital tension early in marriage influences marital well-being of spouses over time. Previous research in the field of family psychology consistently demonstrated that destructive conflict behaviors, such as yelling at or insulting each other, directly affect marital well-being and link to lower marital satisfaction and divorce. Luckily, most of us do not experience intense negative conflicts often, however, it is hard to avoid more common negative situations that could generate unpleasant feelings, such as irritation, disappointment, and resentment. The authors of the present work argued that feelings of marital tension, as a distinctive form of marital negativity, impact spouses’ happiness, satisfaction, and perceived stability over and above destructive conflicts. What is exciting about this work is that the authors were able to assess both spouses’ marital perceptions at the same time, highlighting that each partner might have a different view on their relationship and has the ability to influence the other’s outcomes. Participants in this study were from the Early Years of Marriage Study, recruited in Wayne County, Michigan in 1986 and followed from the Year 1 of their marriage for the next 16 years. Findings of this investigation emphasize the enduring negative effect of initial marital tension on couples’ well-being: both spouses, who reported a higher levels of tension in Year 1, perceived lower marital well-being over time. Moreover, negativity of one partner increased that of the other partner, resulting in reciprocal feelings of tension. Although the level of early tension had similar effects on both spouses, changes in tension impacted wives and husbands differently. Wives were more negatively influenced by fluctuations in their husband’s tension than the reverse. Wife reported the lowest levels of marital well-being for years in which she and her husband both reported an increase in marital tension. Being “the barometer” of the spousal relationship, women may be more sensitive to own and their partner’s feelings. In situations, when negative tension arises and escalates in both partners, it is wife’s feelings of satisfaction and happiness in marriage that suffer the most. Importantly, when researchers took into account destructive conflicts experienced by couples, the same pattern of results remained for marital tension, suggesting that marital tension is harmful to marital well-being beyond destructive conflict and should be seriously considered by researchers, clinicians, and married couples in order to promote and maintain marital success.


Manalel, J. A., Birditt, K. S., Orbuch, T. L., & Antonucci, T. C. (2019). Beyond destructive conflict: Implications of marital tension for marital well-being. Journal of Family Psychology.