Facts About Marital Distress and
Scott M. Stanley & Howard J.
University of Denver and PREP, Inc.
Younger people in the U.S. who are marrying for the first time
face roughly a 40-50% chance of divorcing in their lifetime under
current trends (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992, p. 5).
Of first marriages that end in divorce, many end in the first 3
to 5 years. (As one example, for first marriages ending in divorce
among women aged 25 to 29, the median length of marriage before
divorce in 1990 was 3.4 years; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992, p.
Adults and children are at increased risk for mental and
physical problems due to marital distress (e.g., Cherlin &
Furstenberg, 1994; Coie et al. 1993; Coyne, Kahn, & Gotlib,
1987; Cowan & Cowan, 1992; Fincham, Grych, & Osborne,
Mismanaged conflict and negative interaction in marriage
predicts both marital distress and negative effects for children
(e.g., Gottman, 1994; Markman & Hahlweg, 1993; Clements,
Stanley, & Markman, 1997; Cowan & Cowan, 1992; and Grych
& Fincham, 1990).
Marital problems are associated with decreased work
productivity, especially for men (e.g., Forthofer, Markman, Cox,
Stanley, & Kessler, 1996).
A variety of studies suggest that the seeds of marital distress
and divorce are there for many couples when they say, "I Do." These
studies show that premarital (or early marital) variables can
predict which couples will do well and which will not with
accuracies of 80% up to 94% (e.g., Clements, Stanley, &
Markman, 1997; Fowers, Montel, & Olson, 1996; Gottman, 1994;
Karney & Bradbury, 1995; Kelly & Conley, 1987; and Rogge
& Bradbury, in press).
Many more couples live together prior to marriage than in the
past--recent estimates are in the range of 60+% (Stanley &
Markman, 1997; Bumpass & Sweet, 1991). These couples are less
likely to stay married, probably mostly due to the fact that they
are less conservative about marriage and divorce in the first
Money is the one thing that people say they argue about most in
marriage, followed by children (Stanley & Markman, 1997). But,
there is a lot of reason to believe that what couples argue about
is not as important as how they argue (Markman, Stanley, &
Married men and women in all age groups are less likely to be
limited in activity (a general health indice) due to illness than
single, separated, divorced, or widowed individuals (National
Center for Health Statistics, 1997).
Children living with a single parent or adult report a higher
prevalence of activity limitation and higher rates of disability.
They are also more likely to be in fair or poor health and more
likely to have been hospitalized (National Center for Health
The "triple threat" of marital conflict, divorce, and
out-of-wedlock births has led to a generation of U.S. children at
great risk for poverty, health problems, alienation, and antisocial
Bumpass, L.L, & Sweet, J.A. (1991) The Role of Cohabitation
in Declining Rates of Marriage. Journal of Marriage and the Family,
Cherlin, A. J., & Furstenberg, F. F., Jr. (1994). Step
families in the United States: A reconsideration. Annual Review of
Sociology, 20, 359-381.
Clements, M., Stanley, S.M., & Markman, H.J. (1997).
Predicting Divorce: A discrimant analysis. Manuscript in
Coie, J., Watt, N., West, S. G., Hawkins, J. D., Asarnow, J. R.,
Markman, H. J., Ramey, S. L., Shure, M. B., & Long, B. (1993).
The science of prevention: A conceptual framework and some
directions for a national research program. American Psychologist,
Coyne, J. C., Kahn, J., & Gotlib, I. H. (1987). Depression.
Family interaction and psychopathology: Theories, methods, and
findings. New York: Plenum Press.
Cowan, C. P., & Cowan, P. A. (1992). When partners become
parents: The big life change for couples. New York: Harper
Fincham, F., Grych, J., & Osborne, L. (1993, March).
Interparental conflict and child adjustment: A longitudinal
analysis. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society
for Research in Child Development, New Orleans, LA.
Forthofer, M.S., Markman, H.J., Cox, M., Stanley, S., &
Kessler, R.C. (1996). Associations between marital distress and
work loss in a national sample. Journal of Marriage and Family, 58,
Fowers, B. J., Montel, K. H., & Olson, D. H. (1996).
Predicting marital success for premarital couple types based on
PREPARE. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 22, 103-119.
Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail. New York:
Simon & Schuster.
Grych, J., & Fincham, F. (1990). Marital conflict and
children's adjustment. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 267-290.
Karney, B.R., & Bradbury, T.N. (1995). The longitudinal
course of marital quality and stability: A review of theory,
method, and research. Psychological Bulletin, 118, 3-34.
Kelly, E. L., & Conley, J. J. (1987). Personality and
compatibility: A prospective analysis of marital stability and
marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
Markman, H.J., Stanley, S.M., & Blumberg, S.L. (1994).
Fighting for Your Marriage: Positive Steps For A Loving and Lasting
Relationship. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, Inc.
National Center for Health Statistics (1997, January). Health
and SelectedSocioeconomic Characteristics of the Family: United
States, 1988-90. (PHS) 97-1523. Washington D.C.: General Printing
Rogge, R.D., & Bradbury, T.N. (in press). Recent Advances in
the Prediction of Marital Outcomes. In R. Berger & M.T. Hannah
(Eds.) Handbook of preventive approaches in couples therapy. New
Stanley, S.M., & Markman, H.J.(1997) Marriage in the 90s: A
Nationwide Random Phone Survey. Denver, Colorado: PREP, Inc.
U. S. Bureau of the Census (1992). Marriage, divorce, and
remarriage in the 1990's (Current Population Reports, P23-180).
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
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