Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2008 | Features

The Marriage Survival Guide

By Kathryn Howe
Couple on the Beach

"I do" is not for the faint of heart. At the University of Iowa, psychologists hope to smooth out a few bumps along the path to marital harmony.

The pictures from two blissful weeks in Jamaica fill the ivory photo album embossed with silver hearts. The wilted bridal bouquet hangs on the bedroom wall, while ice crystals form on the top of the wedding cake, snug in its aluminum-foil cocoon at the back of the freezer.

After the tan from the honeymoon fades, the reality strikes. This thing called love--it's hard work. And there's a lot at stake--individual health and happiness, the emotional well being of future generations, perhaps even the stability of our society.

Recent research proves that a bad marriage can quite literally make you sick, increasing your risk for heart disease. At the same time, the societal benefits of good marriages are enormous: married people drink, smoke, and abuse substances less. They earn more and live longer. The latest research even shows that marriages protect the environment (couples consume less energy to power their shared fridges, freezers, and furnaces). Happily married people create healthy families and contribute to stable communities.

But it's not all hearts-and-flowers.

Some 25 percent of married couples report that they're unhappy. Forty percent of first-time married couples won't live happily ever after; their marriages will end in divorce, with the highest break-up risk posed in the first five years.

"The shattering of the marriage dream--almost all young people have that," says John Harvey, who has studied close relationships for almost 30 years as a psychology professor at the University of Iowa, where groundbreaking new research intends to help newlyweds survive and thrive during that tumultuous early time in a marriage.

"To have an intimate relationship with another human being and make it work for a long period--this is about as hard a job as you have in life."

Still, as a testament to our need for love and companionship, more than two million people get married in the U.S. each year, embarking on the toughest and potentially most rewarding work they'll ever face.

Cake topperAt the UI Marital and Family Development Laboratory, assistant psychology professor Erika Lawrence knows that not everyone has the proper skills to succeed at marriage. She's trying to fix that. To improve a pair's chances of survival, Lawrence recently concluded a long-range study that tracked the ups and downs of 105 newlywed couples, starting three months after their wedding day through the first five years of their marriage.

Her goals: capture the evolution of the marriages as they unfold, carefully observing the process behind why some succeed and others fail. Chart the danger zones--the times or events in a relationship that are likely to cause problems. Then, develop therapies that can save couples before they're on the brink of disaster.

"We all get into relationships, but we usually don't receive any training for them," says Lawrence, who established her laboratory in 2001 when she first arrived at the UI, one of only a handful of U.S. universities committed to the longitudinal research of relationships. "Most of the time, when people finally seek therapy, they already have one foot out the door. We'd like to help people long before they get to that point.

Experts like Lawrence know that certain traits contribute to healthy or destructive marriages. Couples who thrive do so for similar reasons. They communicate well, fight fair, respect each other, and make time for fun. Couples who struggle tend to possess poor conflict-resolution skills, disengage emotionally, and resort to psychological manipulation like stonewalling or even physical aggression. Surprisingly, up to one-half of newlyweds who consider themselves "happy" push, grab, shove, or slap each other during arguments. While this behavior typically doesn't cause injury and the slap-happy spouses aren't afraid of getting hurt in return, the practice damages the relationship.

Through a series of questionnaires and interactive, videotaped exercises, Lawrence recorded her study participants' basic personality characteristics and the challenges they faced over time--such as parenthood, a financial crisis, or a worrisome health diagnosis. Most importantly, though, she noted how they weathered these events.

By identifying the positive behaviors that worked and the negative ones that flopped, Lawrence is establishing prevention programs to help couples accentuate their strengths, address weaknesses, and gain the necessary tools--like the Platinum Rule--to create stronger unions.

The Platinum Rule? It's a spin-off from the familiar Golden Rule to treat others as you'd like to be treated. The Platinum Rule switches the focus, though: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. In other words, if your partner has a problem, ask what kind of support she needs rather than providing what you think is appropriate.

"Typically, people will say 'I want more support,'" says Lawrence, noting that gender differences affect what someone offers in the way of such support. "However, it's not how much, but what a person needs, that's critical."

Jayne Dermand Oswald nods her head in enthusiastic agreement with the Platinum Rule. Her husband of four years, Josh, just smiles. "I like to throw a cup of water on the issue and move on," confesses Josh, who, like many men, often seeks to fix a problem instead of lending the compassionate and patient ear that many women prefer. "When Jayne talks, she's not always looking for a solution. She just wants to be heard."


High school sweethearts from Indianola, Jayne, 03BA, and Josh, 02BBA, met in marching band. After several years of dating, Josh surprised Jayne with a Valentine's Day 2002 proposal. They married the following year in a chapel on the Simpson College campus.

Cut from the safety net of school and barely into marriage, they soon felt the real world come crashing down. As Josh tried to earn enough commission as a financial consultant and Jayne struggled to find her own professional path, they endured hard times. She felt lost and a bit dependent; he felt frustrated by their bank account and his wife's discontent. Neither dreamed the early part of their marriage would be so fraught with worries about money.

"There were a lot of tears," Jayne says.

Instead of leaving their troubles to chance, the Oswalds took charge of their marriage. Every six months, they outlined mutual financial and personal goals. They're convinced that this spirit of cooperation and constant communication was critical to their ability to create successful coping strategies during a stressful stretch.

Whether couples confront issues on their own like the Oswalds or seek professional help, the importance of strengthening the weak spots in marriage cannot be understated. As Lawrence says, "Problems left to 'solve themselves' become repeated battles over time."

The Oswalds demonstrate the kind of adaptability that Lawrence discovered to be a crucial factor in a marriage's survival. In her study, she assessed how risk factors such as low self-esteem, neuroticism, anxiety, or a volatile childhood impacted people's ability to adapt to stress and transition.

Every nine months, Lawrence asked her newlyweds about the state of their marriages. Participants answered questions concerning how they felt about sharing vulnerabilities, whether they felt accepted or controlled, and the quality of their sex lives. "I remember one husband characterized his wife's pursuit of a theater career as 'her little activities,'" says Lawrence. "He clearly had no respect for what was important to her."

To observe couples airing out their issues, Lawrence videotaped the newlyweds as each shared a conflict within their marriages. While the cameras rolled, couples wrestled with distressing checkbook balances, annoying in-laws, approaches to child discipline, a lack of quality together-time. Lawrence also asked participants to request support from their spouse in an area unrelated to marriage, such as a desire to quit smoking or lose weight, so she could study this exchange.

Says Lawrence, who also looked for instances where couples could benefit from the Platinum Rule, "Your ability to ask for support ('I would like just to vent for 20 minutes and have you listen without offering advice') and respond to it in a positive way is at least as important as your partner's ability to be supportive when you need it."

Couples who displayed the ability to remain respectful during arguments, offer sincere apologies, and move ahead afterward without negativity fared best in the long run. Specifically, Lawrence points to the resiliency of those who engaged in "do-overs"-where they were able to return to a previously contentious issue and calmly discuss it.

On the other hand, couples suffered setbacks when they kept score, harbored resentment for past transgressions, failed to talk about their conflicts, and blamed each other. The secret to success, says Harvey, is that "people in healthy relationships recognize they are human, but do not let their flaws become fatal."

Ultimately, Lawrence hopes to create healthier marriages that not only improve the happiness of the spouses but also nurture children who grow up to enjoy productive relationships of their own. She now awaits National Institutes of Mental Health funding to offer her skill-building programs to the public for free.

While many keys to a successful marriage concern how spouses manage conflict, Lawrence emphasizes that people do not get married to fight fires, manage money, or coordinate parenting. People marry because it fulfills a basic human need: to love and be loved. People marry because they enjoy each other's company. They want the intimacy and reassurance of knowing that there's a person they can lean on, in whose company they can let down their guard and carve out a life.

No matter how turbulent the daily grind becomes, happily married people remember the hearts, the flowers, the pina coladas on the beach. They never forget why they said 'I do' in thethe the first place.