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