Predicting the seven year itch

New Study Looks at Predicting the Rate of Change in Marital Quality During the First 10 Years of Marriage

Husbands and Wives Living With Only Their Biological Children Showed a Steeper Decline in Marital Quality than Those Living Without Children or Stepchildren

Washington – The first 10 years of marriage has its ups and downs, according to a new study which suggests that marital distress could improve if couples know to expect those declines. In a study published in the September issue of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) journal Developmental Psychology, both husbands and wives started out their marriage with high levels of marital quality and showed a fairly rapid decline in marital quality in the early years of marriage which stabilized, and then declined again.

This study, conducted by psychologist Lawrence A. Kurdek, Ph.D., of Wright State University, involved married couples recruited from the lists of marriage licenses published in a Midwest daily newspaper. Couples were mailed two identical surveys each year for 10 years, with 522 couples participating the first year, and 93 couples continuing to take part in the study at year 10. The study provides further evidence of two sets of normative declines in marital quality. The first decline happens during the early years of marriage, typically referred to as the “honeymoon is over” effect. The second decline happens at about the eighth year of marriage, the period commonly referred to as the “seven year itch” period. Dr. Kurdek notes that “the severity of some instances of marital distress might be mitigated by spouses’ expecting and being prepared for ‘normal’ periods of decline in marital quality.”

The study also looked at how several factors influenced the change in marital quality, including spouses’ divorce history and whether couples had children or stepchildren over the course of the study. The divorce history of the spouses was found to be largely nonsignificant, but the influence of children or stepchildren did have an important influence. Husbands and wives living with only their biological children showed a steeper decline in marital quality than husbands and wives living without children or stepchildren.

“One reason for this influence,” said Dr. Kurdek, “is that in the study sample most biological children were infants or preschoolers. It is possible that the presence of very young children acts as a barrier to ending even a marriage that is deteriorating.” He adds that “it is also plausible that the decline in marital quality is linked to an increase in the stressors of parenting that occur as young children develop. Parents are left with little time and energy to nurture their marital relationship.”

Dr. Kurdek makes no claim that the couples in the study were representative of all newly wed couples because the couples at the beginning of his study were disproportionately White and college educated. Despite that and other limitations, the study is important because it included a fairly large sample of newlyweds with diverse divorce histories who were studied annually for a longer period of time than in most other comparable studies.

Article: “The Nature and predictors of the Trajectory of Change in Marital Quality for Husbands and Wives Over the First 10 Years of Marriage,” Lawrence A. Kurdek, Ph.D., Wright State University, Developmental Psychology, Vol. 35, No. 5.

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