Marital quality is a dynamic concept, as the nature and quality of people’s relationships change over time. There have been two major approaches to conceptualizing and measuring marital quality: looking at the relationship itself (examining patterns of interaction, such as the amount and type of conflict) and looking at individual feelings of the people in the relationship (evaluative judgments of happiness or satisfaction). Marital quality and related concepts – adjustment, happiness, and satisfaction – are the most frequently studied variables in marital research. Despite the wealth of literature examining these constructs, there is a continuing lack of consensus among marital researchers on how to conceptualize and measure marital quality, as well as an absence of a unifying theoretical approach to studying this construct.
Some scholars view marital quality as an interpersonal characteristic. Proponents of this approach treat marital quality as a process, the outcome of which is determined by interaction patterns between spouses. Scholars who take this approach, which was dominant during the 1970s, favor the term ”marital adjustment.” These scholars also view marital quality as a multidimensional construct. Multidimensional measures of marital quality typically assess a number of specific types of interactions between spouses (e.g., spousal agreement about marital issues, time spent together/companionship, conflict, and communication). In addition to measuring reported behavioral characteristics of the dyad, some multidimensional measures also include global subjective evaluations of the relationship (such as happiness, satisfaction, or distress). The most frequently employed multi-dimensional measures of marital quality are: the Locke Wallace Short Marital Adjustment Test (LWMAT), the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS), and the Marital Satisfaction Inventory (MSI).
During the 1980s the interpersonal approach to the study of marital quality, and the multi-dimensional measures utilized by those who adhered to this approach, came under severe attack. First, many multidimensional measures, such as the LWMAT and the DAS, were criticized for combining scales assessing objective reports of interaction with subjective evaluations of the relationship. This combines both the unit of analysis (dyad and individual) and the type of report (objective and subjective). Second, critics pointed out that by including both evaluative judgments about marital quality and reports of specific behaviors and general interaction patterns, multidimensional measures inflate associations between marital quality and self-report measures of interpersonal processes in marriage. This is particularly problematic when dealing with cross sectional data. Finally, multidimensional measures were criticized because the components that are frequently included in multidimensional measures of mar ital quality may, in fact, be determinants of marital quality. These factors, such as communication or couple interaction, also could be considered as independent variables that might influence marital quality. The criticisms of multidimensional measures raised in the 1970s led many researchers to conclude that scales asses sing different dimensions of marital quality should not be summed.
In response to the criticisms of the interpersonal and multidimensional approach to marital quality, scholars began to take an intrapersonal and unidimensional approach to marital quality in the 1980s. This approach was also prompted by the fact that many of the large nationally representative data sets that were available in the 1980s contained only unidimensional measures of marital quality. According to the intra personal approach, marital quality should be conceived of as reflecting a person’s evaluation of the marital relationship, not the interaction between two spouses. Scholars who take this approach frequently employ the terms ”marital satisfaction” or ”marital happiness.” Evaluations of the marriage can be global (e.g., marital satisfaction) or specific (e.g., sexual satisfaction).
Scholars who take the intrapersonal approach to marital quality most often use unidimensional, global evaluative assessments of the relationship. Unidimensional measures take the individual (rather than the dyad) as the unit of analysis and are subjective reports of feelings (rather than objective reports of behaviors). The most frequently used unidimensional measures include: the Kansas Marital Satisfaction Scale (KMSS), the Marital Satisfaction Scale (MSS), and the Quality Marriage Index (QMI). Although unidimensional measures have not suffered the same degree of criticism as multidimensional measures of marital quality, two major short comings have been identified. Unidimensional measures may be subject to considerable social desirability response bias and global measures tend to be significantly skewed toward a positive evaluation.
During the 1990s the lack of consensus regarding how to conceptualize and measure marital quality persisted. In several studies, researchers included more than one assessment of marital quality (e.g., marital satisfaction and marital conflict), but treated them as separate measures. Other scholars have pointed out that marital quality may indeed contain more than one dimension, most likely a positive and negative dimension, but that these dimensions cannot necessarily be summed. Clearly, the debate regarding how to conceptualize and measure this important construct has not been resolved.
Disagreement regarding how to conceptualize and measure marital quality has contributed to the failure of marital researchers to develop a guiding theoretical perspective. Early theoretical attempts consisted primarily of drawing propositions from extant, general theories or of developing middle range theories, such as Lewis and Spanier’s Exchange Theory of Marital Quality.
In the 1980s marital quality research tended to be a theoretical, as scholars struggled to resolve the controversies surrounding how to mea sure and conceptualize marital quality. More recently, new theoretical approaches have been developed. For example, Fincham, Beach, and colleagues offered a new theoretical perspective of marital quality based on a two dimensional structure of affect. It remains to be seen whether marital researchers will adopt this new theoretical approach.
The importance of understanding and measuring marital quality stems primarily from the assumption that it is a key determinant of mar ital stability. Early marital researchers assumed that marital quality and marital stability were directly correlated. However, it became clear that given a certain level of marital quality, some marriages would end in divorce and some would not. Spanier and Lewis identified four types of marriages: high quality/high stability, high quality/low stability, low quality/high stability, and low quality/low stability. A number of researchers have tried to identify factors that may moderate the relationship between marital quality and marital stability. External pressures and alternative attractions have been the focus of several studies.
Investigating the determinants of marital quality has occupied a central place in marital research. One topic that has received a great deal of attention is gender differences. Several studies have offered empirical support that gender shapes individual perceptions of many aspects of marriage. In general, men report slightly higher marital quality than women. Researchers have also investigated how race or ethnicity may shape marital quality. In general, African Americans report lower marital quality than whites, but few other groups have been studied.
Among the most intensely studied topics in marital quality research is the influence of family stage, presence of children, and duration of the marriage on marital quality. In their review of literature from the 1960s, Hicks and Platt (1970) reported that one of the most surprising findings of that decade was that children appear to detract from the marital quality of their parents. The transition to parenthood also was a popular topic of study during the 1970s. Several cross sectional studies identified a curvilinear relationship between family stage and marital quality, whereby the average quality is higher in the preparental and postparental stages. The most common interpretation of this finding was that it reflected the addition of children to the family, their maturation, and their departure. However, more recent longituinal studies have suggested that changes often attributed to the transition to parenthood are duration of marriage effects instead. Some of these studies suggested that rather than being curvilinear, marital quality declines sharply during the first few years of marriage and then tapers off more slowly.
The link between premarital cohabitation and marital quality also has been the subject of a great deal of investigation. A negative relationship between cohabitation and marital quality has been established, but it is unclear whether it is the fact of living together or the type of people who tend to live together before marriage that is responsible for this effect. Research on remarriage has also increased sharply in the past 20 years and much of it has focused on marital quality. This research indicates that average marital quality is slightly greater in first marriages than in remarriages after divorce. It also appears that the average quality in remarriages is somewhat higher for men than for women.
Wives’ employment, spouses’ gender role attitudes, and the division of household labor also have received some attention recently. It seems that congruency between spouses’ attitudes toward gender roles, as well as congruency between attitudes and behaviors, are related to marital quality. A shared division of household labor and perceived fairness of the division of household labor also seem to enhance marital quality.
Marital quality is typically treated as a dependent variable. However, in the 1980s some studies used marital quality as an independent variable to predict the global well being of married people. This research illustrated a strong link between marital quality and general well being. The authors of these studies have suggested that marital quality influences well being. However, the causal direction between these two variables is still unclear.
Bradbury et al. (2000) organized their review of recent marital quality research around two themes: interpersonal processes and sociocultural contexts within which marriages operate. These authors stated that research conducted during the 1980s and 1990s supported the conelusion that spouses’ attributions are linked to marital satisfaction. The 1990s also saw a dramatic surge in research on the affective dimension of marital interaction. Although it is clear that affect is linked to marital quality, the exact nature of the relationship is not clear yet. Inter action patterns (especially the demand/with draw pattern), physiology, social support, and violence were also identified as factors that are linked to marital satisfaction. In the latter half of their review, Bradbury and colleagues focus on contextual factors (both microcontext and macrocontext) that may contribute to interpersonal processes of couples as well as moderate the relationship between processes and marital satisfaction. The effects of children, spouses’ family background, life stressors and transitions, as well as broader social conditions are discussed.
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- Fincham, F. D. & Bradbury, T. N. (1987) The Assessment of Marital Quality: A Reevaluation. Journal of Marriage and the Family 49: 797-809.
- Fincham, F. D., Beach, S. R., & Kemp-Fincham, S. I. (1997) Marital Quality: A New Theoretical Perspective. In: Sternberg, R. J. & Hojjat, M. (Eds.), Satisfaction in Close Relationships. Guilford Press, New York, pp. 275-304.
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- Spanier, G. B. & Lewis, R. A. (1980) Marital Quality: A Review of the Seventies. Journal of Marriage and the Family 42: 825-39.