Non-groundbreaking study: People who work on an unhappy relationship sometimes succeed

Couple TimeJust as you would with any “One simple trick” ad, you should be skeptical of a headline like this:

New Study Reveals Secret To Saving Your Marriage After Infidelity

Uh, yeah, no. HuffPo summarizes a recent UCLA/University of Washington study on couples who experienced infidelity. The study found:

Over the course of the study, 19 of the couples experienced infidelity by one or both partners. Of those couples who cheated, 74 percent revealed their infidelity before or during the study, while 26 percent kept it secret (it was later discovered by researchers).

That distinction became very important in determining which relationships survived. At the end of five years, 43 percent of couples who had revealed the infidelity were divorced compared to 80 percent of the couples whose infidelity was kept secret.

Leaving aside the time-shifting abilities couples apparently displayed here (if I’m reading that right, apparently some couples revealed before the study an instance of infidelity that happened during the study), those numbers are almost surely wrong. More than 19 couples probably experienced infidelity over that time, and however far the actual number is over 19, those couples didn’t tell the researchers about it ever.

Let’s presume that some couples experienced infidelity and the researchers never knew, either during or after the study. That’s not a stretch; many couples don’t report their infidelity, for a variety of reasons. Of these couples, of course some broke up and others stayed together. What would that do to results? Potentially quite a lot.

The report says that 80% of couples who kept their infidelity secret for a little while broke up. That sounds like a more formal way of saying four out of five, because it is literally four out of literally five. Such a small sample should immediately raise your skepticism. If even just three other couples in the study experienced infidelity, didn’t tell the researchers about it, and stayed together, the divorce rate for secret-keeping couples would drop to 50% — a rate that (statistically speaking) isn’t meaningfully different from the 43% divorce rate among couples in the study who revealed their affairs.

Even leaving aside the issues here about how much research participants can be trusted to self-report cheating, this is also an example (common in couples research) of mistaken assumptions about causation. The researchers here are suggesting that, quite often, acknowledged secret-keeping about infidelity led a marriage to break up. But it is just as plausible that the opposite is true: The breakup caused the secret to come out to the researchers. Neither partner would have as much reason to keep infidelity a secret once their relationship had ended.

Now, I can certainly tell you from my own clinical experience that for many couples who come to therapy, the full disclosure of infidelity is vital to keeping their marriage together. But I can also tell you that there are couples who experience infidelity, don’t reveal it to their partners, don’t go to therapy, and still stay together. Is one route better than the other (or at least likelier to lead to a lasting and happier marriage after cheating)? Perhaps. But this study, with its small sample sizes and its unjustified conclusions, doesn’t get us anywhere closer to knowing. All it actually tells us is what we already knew: That sometimes, couples who choose to work on their relationship after revealing an affair are indeed successful in keeping their marriage together.

Study: Marriage stays satisfying over time for many more than previously thought

Newlywed couples, once thought to consistently experience a quick drop in satisfaction, actually often remain just as happy (or close to it) over time, according to a recent study. For couples who do get worse, the reasons can be evident early on. The study’s author comments.                       

Wedding ringsAccording to a study published late last year in Family Process, the rapid decline in marital satisfaction following a couple’s wedding — generally thought to be quite normal — is actually something many couples manage to avoid. The “average” couple experiences a drop because for some couples, satisfaction declines precipitously. But many couples, including the most satisfied, actually remain fairly stable in their marital happiness.

Justin Lavner and Thomas Bradbury at UCLA monitored the progression of marital satisfaction over time among 232 couples, starting soon after the couples were married. They found that couples’ progressions in happiness clustered into five different groups. For the three groups who started out the most satisfied, they tended to stay at about the same level (or decline only minimally) in the four years after their wedding day. For the two groups who started married life less satisfied, things tended to get significantly worse with time — dragging down the population average. As might be expected, among those five groups, divorce rates varied significantly, with the groups whose satisfaction declined over time far more likely to split up.

I asked Lavner a number of questions via email about the study and its implications. The following has been edited for length and clarity. My questions are in bold, and Lavner’s responses are in plain text.

BC: How would you describe your findings in plain language, and what surprised you the most?

JL: We set out to examine one of the most often-cited “facts” about marriage — that satisfaction declines as marriage goes on. We wondered whether this average pattern obscured different patterns that couples experience, and if so, what factors characterized people who had different patterns and how these patterns related to later divorce rates.

We found that although the average pattern is indeed one of declining satisfaction, there are a few different patterns that better characterize newlyweds’ marriages over the first four years, including very high, stable trajectories, as well as marriages that start off low in satisfaction and experience large declines very quickly.

Spouses with negative patterns could be distinguished by a range of factors as early as six months into marriage. These included their personality characteristics, how they interacted with their partners during a 10-minute problem-solving discussion, how much aggression they reported, and how much stress they had in their lives. Importantly, these early patterns related to ten-year divorce rates: couples with the worst trajectories had rates of divorce that were more than four times as high as those couples with the best trajectories!

I think the finding that surprised me the most was how early these differences emerged. All of the factors that distinguished between patterns were found at six months into marriage, and some couples were already dissatisfied by then. To me, this suggests that there is a lot more variability in couples early in their relationships than we had previously thought.

BC: I was amazed at the wide disparity in divorce rates for couples based on their marital satisfaction trajectories. How do you think this data can be used to inform and improve treatment for couples at risk of divorce?

JL: We often hear that satisfaction declines as marriage goes on. While that may be true on average, what’s really powerful about this data is that they highlight how couples vary widely in the likelihood their relationships will deteriorate, and also give us a better idea of what types of characteristics make couples more likely to experience negative marital trajectories. Using this kind of data, we can be more targeted in our relationship education interventions and direct services toward those couples who need them most.

BC: One of your key findings is that for both husbands and wives, Personality, Stress, Aggression, and Positive Affect distinguished trajectory groups. What does this suggest for identification and treatment of at-risk couples? Do we need multiple forms of therapy geared toward couples with different traits?

JL: These findings indicate that those couples with the greatest distress (and at highest risk of divorce) are characterized by a full range of negative personality traits, experience more stress, report more aggression, and demonstrate lower levels of positive affect. This suggests that focusing on any one factor in treatment will not be sufficient: for example, we cannot focus on negative communication without recognizing how couples’ personalities and stressful environments will limit the benefits they can achieve from communication training.

I see this not as evidence that we need multiple forms of therapy geared toward couples with different traits, but more that our interventions need to continue recognizing and addressing the multiple factors that affect couples’ lives. My guess is that it is likely to be quite difficult to fully “match” traits with specific forms of therapy to increase success when there are multiple factors at play.

BC: You mention that the data holds some promise for early identification of at-risk couples, but temper this pretty heavily, saying that “it is nonetheless discouraging because it suggests that the task of strengthening these relationships must address a wide range of possible causes for the distress, some of which may be difficult to modify.” Could you expand on this?

JL: Not only are the couples who go on to experience distress those with multiple risk factors, but some of these risk factors are likely to be quite stable, particularly their personalities and the stress they encounter. We also identify this risk very early in the relationship, which means that by the time couples present for therapy (which they are notoriously slow to do), these distressing circumstances have likely plagued them for several years.

That said, I’m still optimistic about therapy possibly changing these trajectories and ultimately reducing divorce risk for these couples, particularly if intervention occurs early and addresses multiple factors of couples’ lives (as integrative behavioral couple therapy and enhanced models of cognitive behavior therapy now do, among others).

BC: You briefly talk about public policy, suggesting that broad-based marriage promotion programs are not likely to be as successful as programs targeting “the challenging circumstances and chronic stresses likely to impede relationship maintenance.” In your ideal world, what would a program designed to reduce divorce look like?

JL: Ideally relationship education programs need to do more to address the complete gestalt of couples’ circumstances — their particular ways of interacting, their personal histories, and how the contexts they live and work in affect their relationships. How this would play out is still an open question, but could include modules such as personality characteristics and emotion regulation strategies, or work stress and how that affects home life, along with stress management techniques. Special attention needs to be given to recruiting and retaining high-risk couples, as this presents the best opportunity to prevent distress and divorce.

I would also like to see more attention given to factors that can promote relationship stability. These findings indicate that many couples have stable levels of satisfaction over time, so how can we help them maintain and even enhance their relationships? For example, Art Aron and his colleagues (Aron, Normon, Aron, McKenna, & Heyman, 2000) have suggested that participating in novel activities can enhance couples’ relationship quality. Our programs must do more to promote relationship functioning, in addition to helping prevent deterioration in relationships.

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To ease stress, and maybe save your marriage, try doing nothing

When it comes to making a healthier self and a happier family, doing nothing may be the next big thing.                                                                                                                                                                                     

TratakaOne of the hardest things for many of us (myself included) to fathom when we dedicate our careers to solving problems is that sometimes the best solution is no solution at all — just do nothing. Refraining from action can be just as vital a problem-solving strategy as taking action.

Michele Weiner-Davis, the author of Divorce Busting, offers a touching blog entry about how doing nothing helped her own marriage. And there’s the website that challenges you to do nothing for two minutes, which is harder than it sounds if you’re used to moving at a fast pace.

Best of all: Doing nothing can be surprisingly effective.

“Taking a moment to do nothing can be very centering and calming. It allows you to slow the entire experience down and get back to a place of rational thought,” says my good friend and Caldwell-Clark cofounder Aimee Zakrewski Clark, who also runs the No Stress Foundation (full disclosure: I’m on the Board of Directors at No Stress). Indeed, doing nothing can be a surprisingly useful treatment for depression, which fairly quickly improves on its own in as many as 1 in 5 untreated cases. (Naturally, if you’re experiencing depression, talk it over with a doctor or mental health professional — just keep “no treatment” on the table as an option.) And doing nothing can improve family life; the tendency for kids to be over-scheduled has been widely covered. The impact of that hyperscheduling may actually be good for kids, but at the same time, studies routinely show that families do better when they simply spend time together… even if they aren’t actually doing anything in that time.

How does one go from doing a lot to doing nothing, even if for just a few minutes a day?

“Commit to one 5-minute practice per day that invokes the nothingness. You can do a simple exercise I call Choosing Your Thoughts, which engages the breath and mind to help you do just that. As you inhale and exhale through your nose, say to yourself, ‘I am aware that I’m doing nothing,'” says Clark. “You can even add a smile, which will help you to enjoy the exercise.”

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Adding a smile will help us both enjoy your emails to me at ben[at], your posted comments, or your messages to my Twitter feed.

Wyoming bill would require counseling before marriage or divorce

With some exceptions, three hours of premarital or pre-divorce counseling would be required. For divorcing couples, it’s good policy, even though it is unlikely to reduce divorce rates. It is much harder to justify the premarital requirement, on either a clinical or policy level.

Boutonniere-whitesuitA bill introduced in this year’s session of the Wyoming state legislature, HB0065, would require couples to attend three hours of premarital counseling before obtaining a marriage license, and three hours of marriage counseling before obtaining a divorce.

While there is little data to suggest that any three-hour process for couples already planning to split up will make much of a dent in the state’s divorce rate, requiring divorce counseling is a good idea for other reasons. Divorce education reduces conflict in the divorce process, particularly where custody is concerned (see this summary of several studies on divorce education for parents), and saves the divorcing couple as well as the public a significant amount of money in the process. Three hours is not an unduly burdensome amount, and the a judge can waive the requirement if the court finds there is “clear and convincing evidence that marital counseling will not lead to a reconciliation of the parties” — an important consideration for victims of relationship violence. Several states have adopted such programs, often similar to one called “Children in the Middle,” with good results.

The premarital counseling requirement is harder to support, either on a policy or scientific level — and this is coming from a guy who specializes in couples work (San Diego marriage counseling) and loves premarital counseling.

There is ample evidence that these relationship education programs improve communication, but it is unclear whether premarital education actually improves relationship satisfaction or stability, and there is virtually no evidence to suggest they actually have a long-term impact on divorce. (That’s primarily due to a lack of data, not studies showing failure.) A recent, thorough review in the journal Family Relations described current research on the very basic question of whether these programs work as “not as settled as program developers and practitioners might assume or like it to be.” There are at least three large-scale, federally-funded demonstration projects of premarital education (Appendix 2) underway now that should provide clearer answers.

In the meantime, these programs continue to grow because they are, in the words of one report, “popular and valued.” And there is some evidence to suggest they have a greater impact on low-income families, who do suffer from higher long-term divorce rates.

But here’s the catch. In the studies that have been done, as well as the large studies underway now, few have suggested that just three hours of education would be enough to even expect an impact. The federally-funded studies use programs of at least 24 hours of education. Most programs utilize at least 12 hours. Anything under eight hours was considered in the Family Relations review to be a “low-dosage” program.

This is why it’s so hard to get behind the premarital requirement in the proposed Wyoming law. I could see requiring 12 hours, and I can certainly understand requiring none. But three hours? It adds a hurdle to marriage, without sufficient reason to believe it will have a lasting positive impact. And while I believe quite strongly that premarital education can be effective, I cannot support requiring an amount of it that is too low to have any likely effect. Wyoming and other states should either require enough premarital education to make a lasting difference, or none at all.

Update: The bill died in its first committee in February 2011.