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:
Examples of self-assessment questions from these three areas that you can ask yourself are listed below. Read each one and record your response.
7. We understand each other’s feelings.
9. When we are in an argument, we recognize when we are overwhelmed and make a deliberate effort to calm down.
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.
The specific subfactors that make up this factor include the following:
Traits that predict marital dissatisfaction:
Traits that predict marital satisfaction:
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:
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.
The specific factors in this area include the following:
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.
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.
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:
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.
President Gordon B. Hinckley (1999) counseled that marriage "will be the most important decision of your life . . . . Marry the right person in the right place at the right time" (p. 2). Who is the right person? When is the right time? Fortunately, President Hinckley and others have given us inspired counsel concerning these questions, and, over sixty years of research in the social sciences adds another witness to their counsel.
Many of us have the "mote and beam" problem-we easily see the faults of others but not our own. Before holding others up to scrutiny, maybe we ought to work first on becoming a "right person" for someone else. Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1982) advised: "If the choice is between reforming [others] and ourselves, is there really any question about where we should begin? The key is to have our eyes wide open to our own faults and partially closed to the faults of others-not the other way around!" (p. 39.)
We sometimes get led astray by movies and fiction by the idea there is a "one-and-only" somewhere out there and that finding a mate is simply a matter of waiting to lock eyes with someone "across a crowded room" and then living happily ever after. No matter how romantic this idea is, it is not supported by prophetic counsel. Being "in love" is a good start but clearly not enough. "Choose a companion of your own faith. You are much more likely to be happy," said President Hinckley. He continued, "Choose a companion you can always honor, you can always respect, one who will complement you in your own life, one to whom you can give your entire heart, your entire love, your entire allegiance, your entire loyalty" (1999, p. 2). Over sixty years of research suggests four areas we need to look at in choosing a spouse: the individual attributes and core values of the person, the quality of the relationship we are able to build with the person, the person's background, and the things in our environment that affect our choice.*
After prayerfully considering all of the above, we must finally "make a decision," as President Hinckley says. How can we be sure our decision is based on inspiration and not infatuation? First, we need to be worthy to receive the inspiration we need. Second, the scriptures teach that "in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established" (2 Corinthians 13:1). A spiritual witness can be confirmed through prayer; in discussions with parents or a religious leader; while partaking of the sacrament; or in any number of circumstances. Third, the spiritual confirmation needs to come to both parties involved. Elder Dallin H. Oaks (1981) recalled a case "where a young man told a young woman she should marry him because he had received a revelation that she was to be his eternal companion. If this is a true revelation, it will be confirmed directly to the woman if she needs to know. In the meantime, she is under no obligation to heed it. She should seek her own guidance and make up her own mind" (p. 25).
As we search for a mate with whom we can spend the eternities, therefore, we would do well to remember Elder Richard G. Scott's (1999) counsel: "I suggest that you not ignore many possible candidates who are still developing these attributes, seeking the one who is perfected in them. You will likely not find that perfect person, and if you did, there would certainly be no interest in you. These attributes are best polished together as husband and wife" (p. 26).
*See Karney, Benjamin R. & Bradbury, Thomas N. "The longitudinal course of marital quality and stability: A review of theory, method, and research." Psychological Bulletin, 1995, 118, (1), 3-34; Cate, Rodney M. & Lloyd, Sally A. Courtship. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1992; Holman, Thomas B. and Associates. Premarital Prediction of Marital Quality and Break Up , New York: Plenum, 2000.
Written by Thomas B. Holman, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. Adapted from his September 2002 Ensign article, Choosing and Being the Right Spouse.
The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles. (1995, November). The family: A proclamation to the world. Ensign 102. Retrieved June 2003.
Hinckley, G. B. (1999, February). Life's obligations. Ensign 2-5. Retrieved June 2003.
Maxwell, N. A. (1982, May). A brother offended. Ensign 37-39. Retrieved June 2003.
Oaks, D. H. (1981). Revelation. Brigham Young University 1981 Speeches. Provo, UT: Publications & Graphics.
Scott, R. G. (1999, May). Receive the temple blessings. Ensign 25-27. Retrieved June 2003.