Research on Couples

Critical Junctions in Early Marriage – Stuart Andrews, Ph.D.

What was the purpose of the study? To examine how couples negotiate and make meaning out of critical junctures that may occur in the early stages of marriage. Many marital theorists have described the early stages of romantic relationships as moving from a period of early bliss and idealization to a stage of disillusionment. Individuals are thought to be drawn to partners who replicate patterns of early attachment figures in an unconscious attempt to heal the wounds of earlier relationships. While this theory is quite prevalent and informs many stage theories of marriage and models of marital therapy, this was the first research study to examine this critical period in a non-clinical sample to see if these stages are typical developmental processes for couples.

How was it done? I identified couples who had been married for between 3 and 10 years, were in their first marriage, and had never been in couples therapy. Using a semi-structured interview format, I conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with each member of the couple, followed by an interview with the couple together. Participants also filled out a marital satisfaction inventory and background data questionnaire. I then coded transcripts of the 48 interviews using a combination of a “grounded” approach to coding, as well as codes developed from the research questions and existing literature.

Key Findings

  • Experiences of healing were a critical theme in the story of many happy marriages in which one or both spouses described disturbances in their families of origin. Individuals in these healing marriages report corrective attachment experiences with their spouses in which they receive a kind of emotional support that was missing in their family of origin.
  • The vast majority of the non-distressed couples in the study did not report experiences of disillusionment or de-idealization. It may be that experiences of disillusionment and de-idealization are more common in distressed marriages.
  • Couples who were able to negotiate critical junctures in their relationships—such as employment difficulties, the birth of children, the death of a parent, or the illness of one of the partners-- without significant or lasting declines in marital satisfaction appeared to have certain qualities: (a) an ability to insulate their relationship from stressors and relationship events; (b) a firm commitment (at least consciously) not to repeat the patterns of their parents; and (c) a capacity for non-defensive, affirming communication.
  • Couples who were unable to negotiate critical junctures in their relationships and suffered declines in marital satisfaction also appeared to have certain qualities: (a) they managed conflicts in ways that felt unfair to one or both partners; (b) they appeared overwhelmed by multiple stressors and were unable to separate stressors from the relationship itself; and (c) their relationships appeared to repeat negative aspects of their relationships with their families-of-origin.
  • Some couples in which one or both partners had predominantly happy memories of childhood consciously modeled their marriages on the marriage of one or both sets of parents. These couples did not experience critical junctures as a problem and tended to describe their developmental transitions in early marriage as smooth.


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