Discovering and teaching what makes a marriage work

What makes marriage work? A new study from the University of Exeter has looked at exactly this and recommended the findings be taught in schools. After all, entering a marriage is one  of the most important decisions we can make in life, so we ought to do our best to get it right and we should be helped to get it right.

The study found that incompatibility and unrealistic expectations are two common factors in predicting the failure of a relationship. The researchers identified ten attributes and skills leading to long-lasting and happy marriages. Moreover, they recognised that how people cope with life pressures, such as transition into parenthood or different attitudes to financial issues, can make or break a relationship.

Other predictors of relationship failure were an inability to deal with important issues or to nurture the marriage.

Forty-two percent of marriages break down in the UK, and cohabiting relationships, including those with children, are even more fragile than marriages. In order to reduce those figures it is important to understand what skills have to be developed to make a relationship operate well.

The ten key elements in a flourishing relationship were found to be: choosing carefully, underlying friendship, being realistic, seeing the best in the other person, working at it, being committed, keep talking, building a relationship that suits both, adapting to change, and building a support network.

Thriving married couples choose carefully, after a period of testing within the boundaries of friendship, while in separated participants one person was often keener to progress to cohabitation than the other. Broken relationships often lacked a previous firm foundation of mutual friendship.

Happy couples have realistic expectations about each other and are willing to let their alignment develop over time. They are able to see the best in their partners, attributing negative behaviour to circumstances more than character while, in separated couples, mutual blaming was common place.

In successful marriages spouses ‘work at’ their relationships, communicate appreciation and show regular acts of thoughtfulness and kindness.

Commitment to the relationship is a requisite of thriving couples, even when this does not lead to marriage. Staying in a relationship to provide stability to the children is often considered as a moral commitment but it is a positive element only in happy couples, while those in difficulty would be seeing it as a constraint.

Communication fuels intimacy, according to the study. Ability to talk to each other improves over time in thriving couples but those who had divorced parents find open communication something to be learned.

A relationship has to suit both, the couple has to co-create meaning for themselves rather than fitting in societal norms. Those in crisis struggle to agree a shared plan, and this leads sometimes to estrangement.

Strong couples pull together during periods of adversity, they are able to adapt to change and grow jointly. But they also need to build a strong support network. Women rely mostly on their female relations (mothers, sisters, girlfriends) for emotional support while men drew primarily from their wives.

The researchers from the University of Exeter realised that in sex education and relationship classes in secondary schools “too much emphasis was placed on the ‘mechanics’ of reproduction and too little on relationships”.

So, they designed a programme based on the evidence from their study and developed a new relationship toolkit. This would include an app to improve in young people those key attributes and skills mentioned above, which are important to be known prior entering a permanent commitment relationship.

(Iona Institute Director, David Quinn, appeared on Newstalk’s ‘The Hard Shoulder’ to discuss the report. You can listen back to the item here: )