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The more things change, the more marriages stay the same From Science Blog

Despite major economic and social changes, the overall quality of marriage in the United States has not changed in the last 20 years, according to Penn State researchers.

"People are as happily married now as they were 20 years ago, but they also are just as divorce prone," said Alan Booth, distinguished professor of sociology, human development and family studies and demography. "While we identified a number of specific positive and negative features in marital quality, they balance off, resulting in little major change."

Booth and fellow researchers Paul R. Amato, professor of sociology and demography, David R. Johnson, professor of sociology, and Stacy J. Rogers, assistant professor of sociology, studied two national, probability samples of married individuals, one collected in 1980 and the other in 2000. Results of their research are published in a recent issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

The researchers examined three key indicators of marital quality:

- Marital happiness: happiness with 10 different aspects of marriage.
- Marital interaction: frequency of shared activities, such as eating their evening meal together, going shopping, and doing things together.
- Divorce proneness: thoughts or actions-thinking about divorce, talking with each other or a counselor, hiring an attorney, or a trial separation- that may lead to a divorce.

"There were no major changes in marital happiness and divorce proneness, but we found a slight decline in marital interaction," Booth said. "And, there have been a number of important specific changes over the 20-year period." One positive feature was what he describes as "a remarkable change" in the distribution of power, how equal the partners are in terms of influencing family decisions.

For men, there has been an increased amount of housework that has made women happy and men somewhat unhappy. Early research done by Booth indicates that men's displeasure with doing housework will wear off in the years to come. "It is not a long-term problem," he said. One negative factor researchers identified was an increase in the extent to which people marry individuals different from themselves in terms of age and race. Although these marriages can be successful, these differences increase the likelihood that couples will encounter problems that result in declines in marital happiness and interaction.

Cohabitation before marriage, the researchers said, also appears to have negative effects on marital quality. People who live together prior to marriage are different in certain ways from people who marry without a prior period of cohabitation. But even taking these differences into account, people who cohabit first tend to be less happy with their marriages and more prone to divorce.

Booth currently is principal investigator of two major research projects, including Marital Instability Over the Life Course, a longitudinal study of more than 2,000 married persons and their offspring, funded by the National Institute on Aging.

He speculated that martial interaction has declined primarily because of the shift in the United States to a service economy, with more work being done 24-7. Spouses may be working different shifts and are not together as much. The opportunity to do things together is reduced and this can create problems for the relationship.

Booth said the study showed that more people believe that marriage should be a lifelong arrangement, which has a positive effect on marital quality.

"We went through a period in this country, and perhaps are still in it, where more people thought about how the relationship is helping them fulfill their need and not about how to improve the marriage and what they can do to increase their spouse's fulfillment," he added. "Some scholars think we are still going through that period. But it may be fading. The fact that more people are committed to lifelong marriage may indicate it's no longer the case."

According to Booth, researchers were surprised by the fact that there was no overall trend--either positive or negative--in the study and also by the number of positive effects of equalitarian marriages.

"This study is a preliminary report and we haven't looked into specific influences in depth," he said. "We plan to look in detail at the negative and positive factors identified in the study as well as the causal mechanisms involved.

"But, as our current study notes, although married couples face numerous challenges in adjusting to a rapidly changing social context, marriage appears to be an adaptable institution.

"Whether marital quality will improve or decline in the next two decades depends on a variety of structural and cultural factors, including the health of the economy, continued progress toward gender equality within marriage, and resolution of the work-family dilemmas facing many dual- career couples," he added.
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I'm not scared, BRat. The family that skis together...
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