Current marriage conditions are greater influence than spouses' prior history

August 21, 2001

Anaheim, Calif. -- A Penn State study suggests that current marital conditions largely outweigh the previous track record of both spouses in determining the quality of a marriage.

"The most influential factors affecting marital satisfaction are weekly hours of employment, the number of children living in the home, religious attendance and perceptions of unfairness about the division of household labor and money," says Juliana McGene, doctoral student in sociology. "The combined effect of these counts for more than the relationship history that each partner brings to the marriage, including the number of divorces and cohabiting relationships." "Of the factors listed above, one that seems to strongly detract from marital quality is the perception that one's partner is shirking his or her fair share of household responsibilities and is being stingy or irresponsible with finances. While husbands and wives might view marriage conditions quite differently on some issues, they consistently report lower marital quality when they view the division of household labor and money as unfavorable to themselves," McGene told attendees at the American Sociological Association meeting today (Aug. 21) "Also significant is the finding that both husbands and wives report poorer marital quality when their own hours of weekly employment are higher. "In terms of relationship history, my findings show that the number of divorces of one's spouse had a significant effect upon wives' marital quality," says McGene. "For example, the number of times husbands had been divorced noticeably increased the wives' reported frequency of disagreements in the marriage."

It is important to note that relationship history may itself be predictive of present marital factors. Nonetheless, current conditions of the marriage, if favorable on many if not all counts, could compensate for a previous track record of divorce and cohabitation, McGene adds. The Penn State researcher presented her findings in the paper, "Predicting Marital Quality: Relationship History versus Current Marital Factors." Her analysis measured marital quality in terms of happiness with the relationship; the frequency of disagreements, consideration of divorce as a possibility and thinking the marriage is in trouble.

McGene derived her data from the National Survey of Families and Households, the first taken between 1987 and 1988, the second between 1992 and 1994. Her sample consisted of 860 couples. "An important aspect of my findings was how gender influenced perceptions of marital quality," McGene says. "For instance, a higher number of children in the home significantly reduced the level of marital quality for wives, while children had virtually no effect on the reported marital quality of husbands. This gender difference is likely related to enduring child care arrangements in which women often remain the primary caregivers."

Another gender difference was in the importance of religious participation through church attendance. Higher attendance rates of both spouses greatly improved wives' marital quality, while this influence on the husbands' reports of marital quality was modest, according to McGene. "The higher number of key factors associated with wives' marital quality implies a need for additional explanations as to what is important in shaping the perceived marital quality of husbands, as well as highlighting further the differences in what impacts the marital quality of women and men," she adds.

Penn State

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