Why do some families break under stress while others become stronger? This question is especially relevant in the current times where divorce rates are rising. We all know that having a successful marital relationship requires effort on the part of both partners. But what about personality traits that are ingrained in us genetically and socially? Personality is composed of a set of stable traits that influence an individual’s perceptions and behaviors. Notwithstanding, we cannot shed our personality if we do not like it; we can certainly learn coping mechanisms that are conducive to a healthy relationship. On the individual level, personality traits and parental upbringing guide behaviors. On the couple level, marital interactions and coping mechanism play a vital role in shaping the marital trajectory.
Basic personality traits remain relatively stable during adulthood and impact adult relationships. The notion that innate dispositions influence marriage was first advanced in 1938 by Terman and colleagues. Certain personality traits such as positive emotionality, positive affectivity, and positive expressivity are positively correlated with marital satisfaction. Whereas, negative emotionality, negative affectivity, and negative expressivity are negatively correlated with marital satisfaction. Previous research examined factors associated with marital stability to identify and differentiate between marriages that endure as opposed to those that dissolve in the face of crises. Some factors that contribute to satisfying marital relationships include the feelings of love, commitment, fidelity, trust, respect, social support, sexual interaction, gender roles, communication patterns, philosophy of life, equity of tasks, cognitive processes, shared interests in leisure and children, and similar religious beliefs.
To explain the variations in the quality and stability of a marital relationship, Karney and Bradbury conducted a meta-analysis of 115 longitudinal studies representing over 45,000 marriages. They proposed the vulnerability–stress–adaptation (VSA) model, which integrated three classes of variables into a single cohesive framework. These variables include enduring vulnerabilities (individual strengths and weaknesses), stressful events (incidents or transitions encountered by the couple), and adaptive processes (behavior, communication, and coping styles). All these variable classes work in conjunction to make or break the marital relationship.
To have a successful marital relationship, partners should pay due attention to on their enduring traits, incidents that are a source of stress in their relationship, and their behaviors, communication styles, and coping mechanisms. Objectively appraising marital stressors and avoiding making negative partner attributions could help de-escalate marital conflict. Therapists should encourage couples to rethink their negative behaviors and curb assigning blame to each other during crises.
For Further Reading
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(1), 3–34. 10.1037/0033-2909.118.1.3.
Terman, L. M., Buttenwieser, P., Ferguson, L. W., Johnson, W. B., & Wilson, D. P. (1938). Psychological factors in marital happiness. New York: McGraw-Hill.