Forever Families
Mail to Friend

Important Factors to Consider Before Taking the Marriage Plunge


The high divorce rate (about 40% of first marriages end in divorce) in the United States and the resulting concern with marrying the right person at the right time makes selecting someone to marry an especially important contemporary issue for single adults. But what predicts if you will be happily married or not?

According to the rock group, The Beatles, "All you need is love."

Your parents say, "Marry someone whose values are similar to yours."

Your religious leader advises, "Good communication is the key!"

Who is right and who is wrong? All of the above advice is right, but none is complete. That’s because there are over twenty-five separate factors that predict marital satisfaction that you can measure before you get married. The problem is, most people do not know what these factors are!

As stated in The Family: A Proclamation to the World, marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and is essential to His plan for the happiness and development of His children. Unfortunately, few couples take the time and effort to seriously prepare for this far-reaching, all-encompassing sacred covenant. Giving serious consideration to the factors that predict marital satisfaction is a good way to prepare for the joys and challenges of married life.

After reviewing sixty years of social science research and tracking many couples over the years, BYU researchers Jeffry Larson, Thomas Holman, and Robert Stahmann identified many premarital predictors of marital satisfaction that fall in three major groups:

  • Your individual traits, such as personality.
  • Your couple traits, such as communication.
  • Your individual and relationship contexts, such as parental approval of the marriage.

Examples of self-assessment questions from these three areas that you can ask yourself are listed below. Read each one and record your response.


Circle your responses

Strongly Disagree Disagree Undecided Agree Strongly Agree
1. My father was happy in his marriage. 1 2 3 4 5
2. All things considered, my childhood years were happy. 1 2 3 4 5
3. My mother showed physical affection to me by appropriate hugging or kissing. 1 2 3 4 5
4. I feel I am a person of worth. 1 2 3 4 5
5. I avoid getting irritated or mad. 1 2 3 4 5
6. I am an outgoing person. 1 2 3 4 5

7. We understand each other’s feelings.

1 2 3 4 5
8. We sit down and just talk things over. 1 2 3 4 5

9. When we are in an argument, we recognize when we are overwhelmed and make a deliberate effort to calm down.

1 2 3 4 5

Notice that items 1-3 measure characteristics of the family in which you grew up—your family of origin. The higher your score, the healthier your perception of your family functioning. Items 4-6 measure personal traits such as emotional health and self-esteem. The higher your score, the healthier you see yourself. Finally, items 7-9 measure couple traits such as communication skills. A higher score reflects better communication skills. In summary, the higher your scores on these items, the better your background for marriage.

Let’s look more thoroughly at all the specific predictors in these three more general areas of individual, couple, and contextual traits.

Individual Traits

The specific subfactors that make up this factor include the following:

Traits that predict marital dissatisfaction:

  • Difficulty coping with stress
  • Dysfunctional beliefs, such as "People cannot change."
  • Excessive:
    • Impulsiveness
    • Anger and hostility
    • Depression
    • Irritability
    • Anxiety
    • Self-consciousness

Traits that predict marital satisfaction:

  • Extroversion
  • Flexibility
  • Good self-esteem
  • Good interpersonal skills (such as assertiveness)

It’s important for single people to evaluate themselves on these specific traits before seriously considering marriage. These traits make up part of what Jeffry Larson calls your "marital aptitude." The higher your aptitude, the better your chances for success in marriage.

Please note that each of these factors is amenable to change—that is, with concentrated effort you can improve in your weak areas (such as vulnerability to stress). You can do this through self-help books, counseling from a religious leader, or in some cases, professional therapy. The important thing is to honestly assess yourself on these factors before marriage and improve in the areas identified as weaknesses before you marry. Remember, personal problems are not cured by marriage—they are usually aggravated by marriage.

You may want to assess yourself more completely on these traits by doing one of the following:

  1. Complete short tests and compare your answers to others like you using Dr. Jeffry Larson’s workbook, Should We Stay Together? A Scientifically Proven Method for Evaluating Your Relationship and Improving Its Chances for Long-Term Success (published in 2000 by Jossey-Bass).
  2. Complete the 271-item RELATionship Evaluation (RELATE) online questionnaire, available on the Internet at http://www.relate-institute.org.

Larson’s book includes a description of why each factor is important, how to assess yourself, how to evaluate if a factor is a strength or weakness, and how to get help to turn your weaknesses into strengths. The RELATE questionnaire can be taken in about one hour, and the couple receives a printout that describes their scores and how to interpret them.

Now let’s look at the second group of predictors in the area called couple traits.

Couple Traits

The specific factors in this area include the following:

Traits that predict marital dissatisfaction:

  • Dissimilarity on important values, such as religion or roles in marriage
  • Short acquaintanceship
  • Premarital sex
  • Premarital pregnancy
  • Living together
  • Poor communication skills
  • Poor conflict-resolution skills and style

Traits that predict marital satisfaction:

  • Similarity of values
  • Long acquaintanceship
  • Good communication skills
  • Good conflict-resolutions skills and style

Again, you can assess these factors scientifically using the Larson workbook or the RELATE questionnaire. The more weaknesses you have as a couple, the less likely you will be satisfied in marriage. But again, you can modify these traits through couple counseling, getting to know each other for a longer period of time, avoiding living together and premarital sex, and other behaviors that place you at risk for marital trouble.

Finally, let’s examine the contextual factors that predict marital satisfaction.

Individual and Couple Contexts

Context refers to your family and friends, your circumstances at marriage such as age and income, and the health of the family in which you grew up.

Traits that predict marital dissatisfaction:

  • Young age (under 20)
  • Unhealthy family-of-origin experiences, such as
  • Parental divorce or chronic marital conflict
  • Parental or friends’ disapproval of the relationship
  • Pressure from others or yourself to marry
  • Little education and career preparation

Traits that predict marital satisfaction:

  • Older age
  • Healthy family-of-origin experiences
  • Happy parental marriage
  • Parental and friends’ approval of the relationship
  • Significant education and career preparation

Assessing your contexts before seriously considering marriage is very important. Once again, most of these factors are not set in stone but are rather modifiable. For example, you can wait until you’re older and have more income before you get married. You may be able to gain your parents’ or friends’ approval of your relationship by simply slowing down the pace of the relationship so they can get to know your partner better. You can even modify bad memories of family-of-origin experiences (such as divorce) through counseling or self-help reading. The Larson book shows you where to get help.

Getting the "big picture" of your marital aptitude involves first, understanding these predictors and how they work to your advantage or disadvantage, and, second, assessing yourself and your relationship honestly and discussing the results with your partner. Last, you should set goals for self and couple improvement in the areas that are weaknesses before marriage.

Such a "scientific" method of improving your marital readiness is vital before deciding to marry, because the decision to marry should be more than just a decision of the heart. It is the most important decision you will ever make in life. It deserves your thoughtfulness, honest appraisal, and commitment to improvement if you want to be happily married.

In addition to asking what factors predict later marital satisfaction, you may want to ask yourself these questions about preparing for marriage:

Q: Is there a one and only right person for me to marry? A: No! If this were true, why would people remarry after the death of a beloved spouse and be just as happy or happier?
Q: Should I feel totally competent as a future spouse before I decide to get married? A: No again! A person should feel competent to be a spouse, though some feelings of anxiety are natural.
Q: Isn’t love a sufficient reason to marry a person? A: No! Simply being profoundly attracted to a person and having passionate feelings of love does not mean for a moment that you should marry that person. Falling in love is easy. Other factors (such as those discussed above) are equally or more important to marital satisfaction.
Q: Doesn’t preparing for marriage just come naturally? A: Another no! This is called the myth of naturalism. In reality, preparing for marriage is learned and is based upon sound information and personal assessment. Some of that sound information can be found in the social science literature.

Marriage is one of the most gratifying and difficult of all human relationships. Preparing well for it is a great gift to give your future spouse and the children who will join your sacred union.

Written by Jeffry H. Larson, Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.



References

Larson, J. H. (2000). Should we stay together? A scientifically proven method for evaluating your relationship and improving its chances for long-term success.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.