Marriage. It's the stuff of little girls' dreams, comic routines, mothers' schemes, and movie themes. It is for many a symbol of commitment. For others, it is a cultural rite of passage into adulthood. But what really is marriage, or more specifically, what constitutes a successful marriage and how do you know if you're suited for matrimonial bliss? What does happily ever after really look and feel like? With some studies suggesting that half of all marriages fail, what are the chances that when a couple says "I do," they will be in it for the long haul?
In spite of the efforts of theologians, academicians, politicians and armchair philosophers, all of whom have an opinion, we still cannot chart a proven, guaranteed course to "happily ever after." Each couple's relationship is and will remain as unique as the individuals that make up the twosome.
However, through the efforts of Baylor's Keith Sanford and his team of researchers, we may soon have some answers backed up by credible research and documentation revealing what we need to do to ensure success as a marriage partner. We may even be able to examine predictors of our marital outcome and chart a course that will improve our chances of success.
Sanford is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor University's College of Arts and Sciences. A lifelong interest in what makes a marriage last led Sanford to pursue a grant from the Baylor University Research Committee and, now, private funding sources to study how couples fight. Sanford's research is focused on identifying the communication patterns of couples during conflict.
The research has resulted in the development of an online assessment tool, available to the general public, which provides focused feedback to couples based on their unique communication patterns and associated behaviors. His objective is to identify through clinical research the predictors of divorce versus a lifetime of wedded bliss.
Debunking the soulmate myth
Our culture seems to promote the notion that there exists for all of us "one true love." Today's Web sites and match/dating organizations profess to identify areas of compatibility between individuals and the ability to match them with the perfect fit partner. One Web site even asks that the individual enter her cell phone number to receive, via text message, the name of her soulmate for life. Sanford debunks the soulmate idea.
"I believe there is no one person that is right for us and that embracing that belief may, in fact, be detrimental to establishing and building an intimate and satisfying relationship that lasts," he says. "By constantly questioning and testing a relationship to determine if this person is the one for us, we may be setting the stage for failure by expecting too much from the relationship or setting standards that no human being can possibly meet.
"All healthy relationships should have a certain amount of conflict," he adds. "We will not be challenged or grow in a relationship where our partner agrees with us all the time, has the same views or possesses the same type of personality."
Instead, he says, we should count on the differences between us to enrich our relationships. Rather than finding that one perfect person, the answer lies in our understanding of what it takes to develop and commit to a relationship, including acceptance of our partner and his unique traits. Bringing unique strengths and weaknesses into the union creates an intimate bond that leads to a high level of relationship satisfaction, especially when we are able to truly accept the person for whom he or she is.
The question of compatibility
Today, an abundance of Web sites and dating or match services offer to identify not just a date, but a person with whom we are compatible. It is important to note the difference between this type of site and the assessment services that Sanford provides. Match services merely pair up willing individuals. They don't provide the tools the candidates are likely to need to develop and sustain a relationship.
"I would highly recommend these services to any single person wanting to meet people," Sanford says. "As a mechanism for simply meeting people, they can be highly effective. Although matched similarities are not likely to be a key determinant of long-term relationship stability, such similarities are likely to contribute to the initial attraction between two people."
He's clear, however, that a long-lasting marriage is not based simply on compatibility. "It's about working together as a team and being able to resolve conflicts, to provide support to each other, and to share rewarding experiences together," Sanford says. "Moreover, a couple's ability to function as a team is related to three interrelated domains: their communication skills, their thoughts, and their emotions." Acceptance also figures in here, Sanford says, because it requires good communication. For acceptance to occur, one partner needs to clearly and politely express thoughts, desires, motivations and feelings that the other partner listens to and understands. A person must understand rather than blame his or her partner.
Sanford directed a research team of more than 100 undergraduate students over a two-year period to develop the communication assessment. This team works with couples as they communicate through a conflict. They code each statement as positive or negative. Positive communications involve openly sharing personal thoughts and feelings, revealing needs and exposing vulnerabilities. Negative communications focus on blame, defensiveness or criticism which invalidates the other party's position and perspective.
Couples who take the assessment get feedback on their personal behavior and communication patterns. They are asked to reflect on the emotions underlying their behavior and are given time to think through how their emotions and expectations can be positively channeled and communicated to achieve resolution of the conflict.
This process sets the stage for awareness and builds communication tools that are specific to the couple, Sanford says. Using the assessment, the couple can more clearly identify and focus on the real issue and determine if something can be changed or if both parties need to accept and respect their partner's position.
"It's something that can't be taught in the classroom," says Casey Westerfeld, a senior psychology major from Kingwood. Westerfeld spent a semester working in Sanford's lab observing and coding the communication between couples. She saw firsthand how even the smallest of changes in the way a couple communicated could impact the overall relationship.
"I started noticing it in my life and became aware of what I was saying," Westerfeld says. "I would say something and then think 'that has a negative code.' So I made an effort to avoid phrases like 'You always do this or that.' I started to see disagreements go smoother."
Eliminating conflict is not the objective, Sanford says. "Differences and conflict strengthen relationships if couples have the tools and skills to deal with them effectively." A healthy relationship is not always about agreeing, changing your partner's mind or even proving your point, he adds. It is about creating awareness of what is causing the conflict and acknowledging and accepting each other's ideas and values revealed through the feedback process. By acquiring tools through Sanford's assessment process, couples become able to communicate their thoughts, emotions and needs positively, creating more intimacy in their relationship.
"Initially, many couples have a fear of participation in an assessment," Sanford says. "They are threatened by what they imagine may be revealed or that a conclusion will be reached that jeopardizes the relationship rather than strengthens it."
But an assessment is not a judgment of the quality or viability of the relationship. Assessments should be viewed as a tool that allows the couple to identify areas for improvement or change in their approach to conflict. By changing negative messages to positive, open communication, the couple can begin to use conflict to learn about each other and gain insights about each other's needs. Discovery of why and what is troubling a partner and how to be supportive of his needs will lead to a stronger, more satisfying marriage relationship.
Sanford's research may not provide the magic formula to ensure a love that lasts, but as couples develop the skills involved in constructive communication during conflict, their chances for achieving a more intimate dialogue improve.
If you are interested in gaining insight into your own relationship, the assessment tool is available online at www.marriagelab.org