Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Will the Prince and Princess get their happily ever after? Only research can tell

Last Friday the world watched with excitement and anticipation as Prince William and Kate Middleton became husband and wife. Now we are left reading glowing reviews of Kate’s wedding dress, looking at pictures of the best and worst hats (or is that just me?), and gradually moving on, finding other news to grip our attention. William and Kate must also move past the frenzy that surrounded their wedding and begin adjusting to life as a married couple. Their courtship and wedding have been a Disney fairy tale, but are they ready for what it takes to make a marriage work? What does it take to make a marriage work?

Ted Huston attempted to answer just this question with a thirteen year study of 168 couples. For the first few years of their marriages, the couples in his study answered questions regarding their feelings about their relationship and their partner. Then Huston tracked them down again thirteen years later to find out whether they were married or divorced, and if they were still married, how happy they currently were with their marriage. So what did he find?

Who divorced?
There was a small group of couples who divorced within two years of marriage, and these partners began their marriages feeling little love and a lot of negativity towards each other. So why did they marry in the first place? It may be that sometimes people think marriage will make things better. For these couples, that was certainly not true.

What about the late divorcees? The other couples who eventually divorced, but not as quickly, were those who experienced disillusionment in their marriage. These couples weren’t necessarily less in love, less affectionate or less sure of their partners as newlyweds. In fact the couples who divorced later (after seven years) were among the most in love and affectionate to begin with. They also didn’t become especially mean to each other over the years. What happened was that over the first few years of marriage they became unsure about their relationship and started to see their partner less positively. And those who were the most in love but discovered that their partners weren’t who they’d imagined them to be had the furthest to fall (so it took them a little longer to get there). 

Whose still married and happy about it?
For those whose marriages stood the test of time, what distinguished the couples who were happily married from those who were in less happy marriages? None of these couples were experiencing the same disillusionment that the divorcing couples experienced – they were in the relationship they had expected to be in. But for these couples who chose to stay together, their happiness thirteen years into their marriage did depend on how they’d felt about their relationship when they first got married. Those couples who were more in love, felt more sure about their relationship and viewed their partners more positively were happier down the line than the couples who stayed together but hadn’t had such glowing feelings early on. So the unhappy couples who stayed together were those that hadn’t been as in love to begin with, but did a better job of maintaining that level of love over time rather than becoming even more disillusioned. 

In sum:

Marriage doesn’t solve existing problems – those couples who were distressed when they got married ended up divorcing very quickly (less than two years into the marriage).

Disillusionment predicts divorce – Those couples who felt more unsure of their relationship and saw their partner in less and less of a positive light over the first few years of marriage ended up calling it quits. Even those couples who were very much in love and thought they had a great partner when they got married eventually divorced if their expectations weren’t met.

Early love predicts later happiness – those couples who stayed together had stable marriages characterized by the positive feelings they felt early on. As we would hope, couples who were very much in love and felt they had a great partner when they first were married (and didn’t become disillusioned after marriage) were, in fact, the happiest thirteen years later. 

Experiencing negativity in your relationship isn’t necessarily a recipe for distress and divorce – Marriages that were unhappy or ultimately ended were characterized more by a loss of love and affection than an increase in negativity. These results are in line with other findings, such as research showing that people are more likely to say they got divorced because they grew apart from their partners and stopped feeling loved and appreciated than to say they got divorced because of constant arguments and negative affect (Gigy & Kelly, 1992). Marriages that have conflict aren’t necessarily doomed for failure, it seems to be when the bad outweighs the good that the relationship is in trouble.

Their genuine smiles on their wedding day seem to suggest that William and Kate are starting out their marriage on the right foot, but are they true partners who see each other as they really are, or will they be disillusioned with what they find when the cameras are off and everyone else has gone home? And if they (and the rest of us) do experience some disillusionment once we’ve settled in for the long haul, is there anything we can do about it? So far I’ve talked about the benefits of recognizing that your partner has a different view of the world, focusing on maximizing the positive experiences you have together and imagining your life without your partner, and over the next few weeks I will share some other research that looks at how to hold onto happiness in your relationship.

Do you think the Prince and Princess will get their happily ever after? And, because who can really resist – did you like her dress, and which were your favorite and least favorite hats at the royal wedding? Let me know!

The article:
Huston, T., Caughlin, J., Houts, R., Smith, S., & George, L. (2001). The connubial crucible: Newlywed years as predictors of marital delight, distress, and divorce. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80 (2), 237-252 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.80.2.237


  1. For anyone interested, John Gottman writes many books on how to make a marriage work, including The Seven Principles of Marriage, And Baby Makes Three, and The Relationship Cure.

  2. Great suggestions! I actually gave my sister "The Seven Principles" when she got married and "And Baby Makes Three" when she was pregnant because I like that these books have advice for couples based on scientific evidence. I will likely write a post on Gottman's work sometime in the near future (particularly his work on the "four horsemen of the apocalypse"). What is unique about the research that I talked about in this post is that it started following couples from right after they got married. This is in contrast to a lot of the research on married couples, like Gottman's, which has looked at couples who have been married for a while. Although this latter work is highly informative, it doesn't tell us what patterns that are present at the beginning of marriage ultimately influence divorce.