Comparison of High and Low-Distress Marriages

Journal of Marriage and Family 69 (August 2007):621-638
Paul R. Amato and Bryndl Hohmann-Marriott: Pennsylvania State University.


Comparison of High and Low-Distress Marriages

That End in Divorce (summarized)


A study was conducted in United States in 2007 by Paul Amato and Bryndl Hohmann-Marriott to compare high and low distress marriages that end in divorce in order to understand why married couples get divorced.
They wanted to see if the popular belief that only couples who fight frequently, becoming increasingly disengaged from one another emotionally, causing marital happiness to decline are generally the couples that end up getting divorced.
In a series of publications Amato, Booth and Loomis presented evidence that many couples do not experience high level of discord and marital unhappiness prior to divorce. Contrary to the pattern described before, couples appear to end their marriage for reasons that only partly reflect the quality of their marriage.
Levinger’s commonly applied theory for divorce is based on three components; attraction, barriers and alternatives. First he suggests that attraction is based proportionately to the rewards received minus the costs involved (costs reflect the negative aspects of the relationship such as verbal and physical aggression). Although low level of rewards may lead to thoughts of divorce, spouses who wish to end their marriage must overcome a variety of barriers which include moral or religious values, concerns about social stigma, legal restrictions and financial dependence. At times the lack of alternatives can reinforce stability in the marriage. Of course some spouses may prefer living alone rather than be in an unrewarding marriage.

Another central construct in exchange theory is the comparison level for alternatives. Spouses who enter marriage with low level of expectation for personal fulfilment may be happier than a spouse who has a high level of expectations.

Johnson distinguishes between three forms of commitment; Personal commitment where partners enjoy each other’s company. Moral commitment is based on feelings of obligation, that one should remain in a relationship despite existence of problems and finally structural commitment which is based on constraints or lack of good alternatives to the current situation.

Recent surveys carried out in the US indicate that cultural changes in society have affected the attractions, barriers and commitment for marital stability. Survey of college students in the 1950’s and 60’s indicate that marriage was valued because it provided a home, a stable and economically secure life and the opportunity to raise children. In contrast, more recent surveys indicate that college students value marriage because they expect it to provide a deep source of love and emotional fulfillment – which is a more individualistic approach to marriage. According to this perspective many people now expect marriage to serve as a vehicle for personal growth and self-actualization. Marriages that do not meet these deeply personal needs may be viewed as failures, despite other benefits that these unions may provide. All things being equal, as people’s expectations of marriage increase, an increasing number of people will be unsatisfied with their marriage. Divorce becomes more of an issue of low level of commitment to the marriage rather than a case of getting out of a deeply unsatisfying and distressing relationship.
Surveys have shown that individuals in high-distress marriages experience improvements in subjective well-being, whereas individuals in low level distress marriages experience decline in subjective well-being. This hypotheses is based on the assumption that individuals in moderately happy marriages that end in divorce may not fully anticipate the difficulties and stresses that often accompany and follow marital dissolution.
A quantitative survey done in the 1980’s reveal decreases in the extent to which people have confidence in religious answers to important questions, place trust in religious authorities, and pray or read religious materials. This decline in religious influence is likely to have undermined people’s beliefs about the sacred nature of marriage and its importance as a religious commitment. Moreover the massive shift of married women into the workforce has meant they are less financially dependent on their spouses, hence making it easier for them to leave low to moderately unhappy marriages which would not have happened in 1950’s and 60’s.

In conclusion it is possible that many of these couples have been influenced by the belief that a good marriage should provide a high level of personal growth and self-actualization, criteria that many, perhaps most marriages cannot meet. Given the high rate of divorce and its implications on economic and social well-being of parents and children more research and exploration of possibilities on how to prevent the breakdown of the family unit are clearly warranted.

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