A few years ago, when we were first engaged, my husband and I spent a weekend with two couples we were just getting to know. Over three days we couldn’t help but study the dynamics of each relationship. One couple kept erupting into heated arguments over silly things, like which detergent to buy; the other couldn’t keep their hands off each other. On the way home my husband and I (still in that heady early phase of love) decided the fighting couple was headed for divorce and the lovebirds would last forever. Just the opposite proved true.
Until recently, most marriage therapists would have agreed with our prognosis, believing as we did that you can predict a marriage’s success from such clues as how frequently a couple fights, how much time partners spend together, how affectionate they are, and how much equality exists within the relationship.
But new research by prominent psychologists and social scientists reveals that many of these “clues” are false. Studies of thousands of couples prove that marriages that seem doomed may be highly durable, and those that seem happy may be primed for disaster. The success or failure of the relationship hinges on the couple’s marriage style—their complex, unique patterns of behaviour. “The style evolves from the interaction between two people. In other words, style is neither consciously decided by the couple nor controlled by one partner.
And although a marriage style becomes more entrenched over time, it isn’t static. The birth of a child, for instance, may temporarily create friction in a previously smooth relationship, while a crisis may draw a distant couple closer. A marriage may evolve through several styles before settling on one. Still, time and circumstance have very little influence on the fundamental way in which a marriage functions.
What will influence the marriage, is how you view it. Experts found that even during arguments and times of stress, happily married couples behaved five times as positively toward each other as negatively. Even thinking positively about your husband counts. In unhappy couples 1.25 times as many negative behaviours as positive ones.
One of the following five styles, which draw on the most significant aspects of all the new studies, is sure to fit you.
STYLE 1 PASSIONATE
Couples who argue a lot are no longer seen as necessarily doomed. The kind of marriage that used to be described as dysfunctional is now called a volatile marriage—the partners engage in debate right away and don’t avoid conflict. In such marriages neither partner is withdrawn or passive; both fight persuasively and loudly. They may express more anger than other couples, but—and this is what saves them—the passion they bring to their fights is present in all their interactions. In these relationships, there can be a lot of fun, besides the ability to confront issues head-on.
After three years of marriage, Winnie, 30, director of a childcare center in Toronto and Daryl, 28, a graduate student, consider themselves very happy—especially now that they’re expecting their first baby. Yet their fights can be quite heated. “One time we both threw chairs across the room,” says Winnie. “And once Daryl got so angry he smashed his laptop on the floor.” Usually their fights are about money or sex: Daryl thinks Winnie spends too much; she thinks he’s too interested in sex. Even if they start out arguing about something else, inevitably one or both topics surface.
At times they seem at such odds, friends and family are sure their marriage won’t last. But what has saved them during rough patches, Winnie says, is their love, sense of humor, and resolution to never go to bed mad. “We know how to talk each other out of being angry,” says Winnie. “And we’re learning to fight more rationally as time goes by.”
Experts say it’s not the frequency, intensity, or subject that matters but how you fight. “You can fight constructively, and simply explain your point of view or you can be destructive by attacking each other personally and crushing each other’s spirit.”
The key question is whether the fights accomplish anything. If both spouses are pleased with the outcome, chances are the marriage isn’t in danger. And as long as partners spend five times as much time being loving, they’ll remain stable. If the fights outweigh good times or consistently fail to satisfy, there may be trouble.
STYLE 2 INDEPENDENT
Happy, long-lasting marriages depend on lots of togetherness, right? No, says the new research. Some people like to do a lot together, and some need space, and either way can work out fine. Couples who like time apart may be very independent but loving, or have little emotional involvement.
Shannon, 30, a photo researcher, and Daniel, 31, a newspaper publisher, exemplify a middle-ground version of independent style. “We retain separate friendships and even travel separately sometimes,” says Shannon. “We’re different people with different social needs, but we’re very close.”
There are also marriages that are more like arrangements, where such considerations as child rearing, finances, or religious beliefs, rather than any emotional connection, keep a couple together. Experts call them parallel-track marriages because the couple do a lot together—throw parties, raise kids, share housework—but without any real intimacy. The big surprise: this type of marriage is among the most stable.
Of course, stable doesn’t always equal happy. And too much apartness can throw an independent-style marriage into the high-risk category. The benefit of this style is that you don’t have much conflict; the risk is that you don’t have much intimacy. To avoid drifting into indifference, a couple needs a foundation of communication and caring.
Shannon and Daniel do well because neither needs more attention or time together. If one did, it might strain the relationship and upset its balance. And despite their need for independence, they’re there for each other emotionally. If Daniel has a crisis at work, he calls Shannon; when something wonderful happens to her, she wants to share it with him first.
STYLE 3 LOVEY-DOVEY
Everyone thought Jen, 35, and Howard, 40, were the ideal couple. They were always so affectionate their divorce came as a jolt.
Yet as romantic as the I-can’t-live-without-you style may seem, it can be quite desperate. Clingy, inseparable lovebirds may appear blissful, but their showy affection may be an attempt to convince each other that their love is stronger than it actually is. As Jen says, “It was part genuine affection and part mutual reassurance that our marriage wasn’t going downhill.”
We all want to feel close to our spouse, but experts say that yearning must be tempered or the marriage will suffer. Most relationships begin with a lovey-dovey phase of blurred boundaries and eventually segue into some independence. But couples who never move out of the initial phase become threatened by any move toward separateness. Terrified of conflict, they’ll do anything to avoid it. “We never fought, which was part of the problem,” says Jen. “Howard had this image of happily-ever-after and I tried to perpetuate it. We couldn’t fight because that would mean we disagreed and had two separate identities.”
Behind such forced harmony often simmers anger and resentment, especially when one of the partners starts to yearn for growth. “Eventually I realized I couldn’t be myself within the marriage—I was only role-playing,” says Jen. She started focusing on herself, her friends, and her work. But the more Howard resisted her independence by withdrawing emotionally. “It was all or nothing,” says Jen. “First it was all, and now it’s nothing.”
STYLE 4 FAMILIAR
Darlyn and Chuck, both Chicago lawyers in their early forties, have two children and a decidedly happy and loving marriage, even though Darlyn runs the show. She makes their plans, chooses most of their friends, and frequently interrupts her husband to correct him. If you asked Chuck why he concedes to his wife so often, he’d point out Darlyn’s intelligence or gift of organization, and his genuine lack of interest in such things.
Most therapists agree that in this type of marriage, patterns from early childhood are being repeated, or a need is finally being met. It’s probably significant, for instance, that Chuck’s mother died when he was a baby.
There is this man, the youngest in a family of women, who married a woman used to bossing around her younger brothers. These relationships work because they’re so familiar,” “If the same man were in a relationship with a woman who looked to him for guidance, he’d be far less comfortable.”
Friends of Darlyn and Chuck don’t understand how they can be so happy together, and how he can stand being so much in her shadow. But, experts say, as long as there’s a foundation of mutual respect, the passive partner probably doesn’t feel slighted. Instead of feeling controlled, he or she may feel cared for and relieved not to have to make decisions. And the dominant partner likely needs to have control. Power always has to do with asymmetry, and that’s not necessarily bad. It depends on how it makes people feel.
This type of marriage may seem unhealthy and unequal, but it can be quite happy if both partners agree to the unspoken rules and feel their needs are met. A potential risk is that either partner may outgrow his or her role, or harbour hidden resentment about it, which threatens the balance of the relationship.
STYLE 5 HARMONIOUS
Together for seven years, Bessy, 34, a book publisher, and Sam, 33, a sound engineer, have a marriage in which seemingly effortless harmony and equality rule. They’ve not only struck a balance between dependence, but they are able to argue constructively and share family responsibilities equally. “I handle the finances and Sam handles the maintenance of the house,” says Bessy. “But we share the cooking, cleaning, shopping, and childcare 100 percent.”
Their marriage style is the model to which therapists once thought all couples should aspire. And why not? It’s the one style that’s truly as stable as it looks. Yet according to experts, less than 20 percent of today’s marriages fall into this category. Among those that do, he’s found several common denominators: The couples are satisfied with most aspects of their relationship; they’re comfortable with each other’s habits and personality; and are older and married longer than those in other categories. When differences arise—usually about money or child rearing—they’re resolved with little stress.
And that, says experts, is critical. Research shows that the key to this style is the couple’s ability to listen to each other: They appreciate each other’s opinions, even if they don’t agree with them. And they pick their fights more carefully than, say, a passionate couple.
In truth, though, this style hinges on an indefinable element that the two partners bring to the relationship. If you tried to force such harmony, you might end up like clinging love-birds, and the marriage would start to fall apart. Ultimately, you can’t fake marriage style.
No matter what your style, there’s one factor experts say will jeopardize any relationship: complacency. Ceasing to view your marriage as a living thing that needs effort and attention will destroy it. And expecting difficulties to magically work themselves out is unrealistic. More relationships are ultimately destroyed than enhanced over time. You have to work at counteracting that by keeping your marriage a priority and investing time and energy in it like you would a job.