When Marriages Die: Premarital and Early Marriage Precursors to Divorce

Topics: Marriage, Love, Courtship Pages: 11 (3563 words) Published: August 5, 2013

This paper reviews a series of studies addressing the question of whether loss of love and affection early in marriage and long-term marital instability have roots in couples' premarital relationships. The findings summarized in this paper suggest that loss of love and affection early in marriage and later marital instability can be traced back to couples' courtship experiences; findings also suggest that the courtship dynamics of couples who are likely to divorce early in marriage are different from those who are likely to divorce later in marriage. Also, compared to couples who remained stably married over a period of 13 years, couples who divorced had courtships characterized by more extremes regarding the passion and pace of their courtship. Implications of the findings for premarital education are presented.

Keywords: courtship, dating, divorce, marriage, premarital education


Most people in the United States marry a loving, affectionate, and caring partner (Huston, Niehuis, and Smith 2000; Simpson, Campbell, and Berscheid 1986). Yet, nearly 50 percent of these first-time married couples will one day find themselves divorced (Kreider and Fields 2002).

Working under the assumption that "The basic cause of divorce … is faulty mate selection and inadequate preparation for a companionship type of marriage" (Waller 1938, 247), social scientists and mental health professionals have tried for many decades to identify factors during courtship that predict marital stability. (For reviews of the literature, see Cate and Lloyd 1992; Holman 2001; Larson and Holman 1994; and Niehuis, Huston, and Rosenband 2006). Under which circumstances do people make bad choices when selecting a marriage partner? Are dating partners who (a) are young, (b) fall in love quickly and deeply, (c) become sexually intimate with one another early in their relationship, (d) feel very passionately about one another, (e) idealize each other, and (f) commit to marriage soon, more likely than others to maintain an affectionate, loving marital bond? Or, are such couples more prone to have their romance dissipate early in marriage and to eventually become divorced? In the present paper, we report the findings of a series of research studies that have addressed these questions. Most of these studies are based on one major research project. Where appropriate, we will point out any discrepancies between our research findings and those of other studies.

In the next sections we will approach the topic of premarital and early marital predictors of divorce in a reversed order. We will start out by presenting research that shows that it is possible to predict whether couples will remain married or become divorced within the first 13 years of their marriage based on the experiences couples bring into their marriage and the changes they experience during the first two years of marriage. Next, we will differentiate between those couples who divorced relatively early and those who divorced relatively late, and we will provide a portrait of their courtships and early marriage relationships. Because changes early in marriage are predictive of subsequent divorce, we will also review research in which these changes are traced back to couples' courtship experiences. Finally, using data from a different sample, we will provide additional information about the role that idealization and passion play in dating relationships, concluding with implications of the findings presented here for pre-marriage education.

The prognostic importance of dying love and affection

Waller, a pioneer in marriage research, suggested that it is the erosion of spouses' feelings of love and the waning of their affection that cause divorce (Waller 1938). This researcher assumed that courting couples are generally blissful, optimistic lovers who, in order to sustain their romance, draw attention to their desirable qualities, suppress thoughts and behaviors that...
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