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What's Love Got to Do With It?: Long-term study reveals what makes some marriages last

In 2002, the cost of the average wedding was about $20,000. The average divorce? Around $20,000 as well. With the tab for love—and loss of love—being so steep, it’s a shame that more couples headed for the chapel haven’t heard of Ted Huston. His study of courtship and marriage could save some starry-eyed pairs a tidy sum.

Dr. Ted Huston
Dr. Ted Huston studied 168 couples over 14 years and found that good courtships presage good marriages.

Huston, a professor of Human Ecology at The University of Texas at Austin, has studied intimate relationships for 30 years, and he’s heard more about amour than Oprah.

As a young researcher at Pennsylvania State University in the 1970s , Huston was intrigued by the question, “Why do people sometimes approach the person they’re attracted to and sometimes not?” That query led to an interest in why some couples do marry, which then led to curiosity about elements of enduring marriages. Fueled by these questions, Huston created the Processes of Adaptation in Intimate Relationships (PAIR) project in 1979.

PAIR began with the tidy, short-term goal of following a sample of newlyweds through the first two and a half years of marriage. PAIR researchers planned to examine the fabric of a couple’s everyday life, from the division of labor in the household and the number of times the husband said “I love you” to the frequency of watching television together or having sex. What emerged was a groundbreaking, 14-year, four-phase examination of 168 couples.

Heart shaped with roses

The 168 couples who were chosen for the study were selected from public marriage license records in Pennsylvania and all were in their first marriages. Most were white, working class and in their early 20s.

The result of the longitudinal study is a detailed snapshot of intimate relationships, from the first burst of passion through, for some, the pain of divorce.

“Out of all of the couples that we contacted, 40% agreed to participate,” said Huston. “We told the couples that we’d be getting right inside their marriages and that if they reported things being better in the relationship than they really were, our entire study would be flawed and ruined. We were very surprised so many chose to participate.”

Over the course of the research work, comprehensive information was collected, through face-to-face interviews and phone interview diaries, about each couple’s courtship, early marital experiences and, finally, the relationship’s outcome over a decade later. PAIR project research showed that the seeds of divorce can be detected during courtship and clearly are evident during the first two years of marriage.

Sample of Findings from the PAIR Project

Women who sense future problems while they are courting generally find out after they are married that their concern was well-founded.

Couples who are particularly lovey-dovey as newlyweds are likely to divorce.
Whether a marriage will be happy or whether it is headed for the divorce court can be foretold from how things go during its first two years.
Men with traits stereotyped as “feminine” make better husbands.
The extent of differences in tastes and ideas among couples does not predict divorce. Some couples bury their concerns over such differences; others brood over them. Those who brood are more likely to divorce.
Anxiety, moodiness, and emotional swings in the wife or the husband do not preordain divorce, but they are related to unhappiness in marriage.
The birth of a child transforms couples’ lifestyles, but it does not change the feelings husbands or wives have about each other.
Wives’ maintenance is significantly associated with husbands’ satisfaction when spouses are newlyweds.
Wives engage in more maintenance behaviors than husbands.
Spouses’ maintenance behavior declines over the first two years of marriage.

Most studies of marriage and divorce have settled on something called an emergent distress paradigm—this posits that the majority of couples are uniformly giddy through courtship and the newlywed stage and that discontent develops later because of escalating disagreements and negativity.

What Huston found was that newlywed couples differ considerably from one another in the intensity of their romantic feelings and the frequency of negative behavior toward one another from the beginning and that, for those who remain married, these early behavioral patterns persist over time. Good courtships presage happy marriages and turbulent courtships foreshadow future problems.

Interviews with PAIR couples show that several of the couples fought through their courtships, expressed ambivalent feelings about one another and broke up numerous times but elected to marry nevertheless.

Huston also concluded that all divorced couples are not created equal. The bloom of romance fades differently in marriages where partners linger before divorcing than it does in marriages that dissolve very quickly.

In the PAIR study, couples who were married two to six years before divorcing were dubbed “early-exiters,” and Huston refers to their rocky relationships as “Country Music Romances” – all tears and high melodrama.

The early-exiters were a group whose relationships spelled disaster from the outset. They reported problems even in the dating stage and were aware that they were “not as much in love” as other courting couples. Despite this realization, they were unwilling to take steps to improve the quality of the relationship. Early exiters also tended to have extremely long courtships, dating casually for an extended period of time before finally agreeing to date one another exclusively.

Once married, the early exiters’ relationships almost immediately began to unravel, and interviews with these couples showed that the spouses were not particularly enamored of or affectionate with one another even as newlyweds. Spouses rapidly developed ambivalent feelings about one another and the relationship during the first two years, and the wives, in particular, soon fell out of love.

Bead embroidered 'Kiss Me'

According to Huston, early exiters seem to enter marriage with the notion that matters will improve once they are wed, and when the relationship continues to deteriorate, they cut their losses post-haste.

The second category of divorced couples was designated “delayed-action divorcers.” These couples were married at least seven years before separating and consisted of individuals who might best be described as those who are in love with love. In PAIR literature they are occasionally referred to as “the Hollywood Romance Group.”

Their courtships were short in duration and as passionate and fireworks-filled as a scene from a Danielle Steele novel. The partners reported being highly affectionate and deeply in love while dating, with the men, in particular, expressing little ambivalence about the relationship during courtship.

Classification of PAIR Project Couples

62 reported being happily married after 14 years

38 reported being unhappily married after 14 years
10 were married less than two years
21 were married two to seven years before divorcing
25 were married seven or more years before divorcing


[12 couples were excluded from analyses due to death of a spouse, lack of data on marital satisfaction from both spouses or the inability to locate the couple]

Despite the rosy beginnings, delayed-action divorcers typically became significantly less affectionate during the first two years of marriage compared to other couples. This decline in amorous impulses was accompanied by a decline in their tendency to view one another as caring and responsive.

Wooed by the allure of romance, partners fell in love with idealized images of one another, each drawing attention to his or her most desirable qualities and the qualities that the other partner seemed most fervently to want.

In marriages such as this, a woman who can’t boil water and knows more about Prada than Pampers may present herself as the perfect future homemaker, cook and PTA mom. A man may profess, while dating, his love of museums and chick flicks, only to be found worshipping, every spare moment after marriage, at the altar of ESPN, eating bologna straight from the package.

After the honeymoon, and somewhere between leaving the toilet seat up and burning the house down, a dull disenchantment or displeasure with the mundane little facts of a partner’s actual persona sets in. According to PAIR research, spouses become less motivated to impress their partner and the day-to-day intimacy of marriage makes idealized images much more difficult to maintain. When the storybook romance falls away, partners may be disappointed with what they find. The couples reluctantly give up on their marriages long after love begins to wane.

Young couple snuggling on South Mall

A disenchanted and discontented spouse does not, however, necessarily lead to the dissolution of a marriage. Marriages that endured for the entire fourteen years of the PAIR study fell into two groups—unions in which both spouses were happy about the relationship, and those in which at least one partner was displeased.

Because happy, long marriages are a goal of most couples, perhaps the most intriguing and beneficial bit of information from the PAIR research was the discovery of a particular mix of personality traits which spouses in happy marriages possess.

Marriages in which one or both spouses possess stereotypically “feminine” traits such as warmth, kindness and a high level of concern for others tend to evidence a strong degree of marital satisfaction and are preceded by courtships that show a smooth, even progression toward marriage. Individuals with so-called feminine traits typically behave more affectionately and elicit similar behavior from a partner, and they also are inclined to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Framed photo of Dr. Huston's wife at 18
Dr. Huston’s wife of 35 years at 18.

In comparison to the high drama of failed marriages, the explanation for happy, enduring marriages seems almost disappointingly simple and jejune. Not like a tempestuous Hollywood blockbuster movie at all.

“The courtships and marriages that are successful are the ‘best friend’ ones, the ones that are slow and steady and unfold over time,” said Huston. “Positive feelings like trust and respect emerge, and the whole thing mirrors the evolution of any other kind of good relationship in life.”

Couples who have lasting marriages take the courtship at a leisurely pace and enter marriage with their eyes open to the strengths and weaknesses of one another and the relationship.

Given that Huston has spent the past three decades scrutinizing an institution that leaves about 50% of its adherents in divorce court, one might think he would be a little bit cynical, perhaps even divorced himself.

When asked about his marital status, however, he replies with a large, sheepish smile that he has been married 35 years, and one notices, stationed in a prominent position on his work desk, a framed, 8x10 headshot of a beautiful, blue-eyed blonde with a flip hairdo and a perfect smile. It’s his wife, at 18.


[Bliss or Bust? Take the Marriage Quiz—Created for Psychology Today by Ted Huston, Ph.D., Shanna Smith, Sylvia Niehuis, Christopher Rasmussen and Paul Miller]

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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