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Marital Quality

Trends In Reported Marital Happiness

An essential part of the task of assessing the state of marriage in a modern society is to gauge change in the overall level of reported marital quality. Unfortunately, the data necessary for this task are quite limited for most societies, the United States being no exception. Until the early 1990s, about the only published evidence on this issue for the United States was from the Americans View Their Mental Health Surveys, conducted with national samples in 1957 and 1976. Joseph Veroff, Elizabeth Douvan, and Richard A. Kulka (1981) compared responses at the two dates to the question, "Taking things all together, how would you describe your marriage—would you say that your marriage was very happy, a little happier than average, just about average, or not too happy?" The "very happy" responses increased from 47 to 53 percent, and the combined "average" and "not too happy" responses declined from 32 to 20 percent—an indication of a moderate increase in marital happiness. The importance of not combining evaluations of specific aspects of marriages with global evaluations is illustrated by the fact that the percent of respondents who said "nothing" in response to a question about "not so nice things" about their marriage declined from 31 to 23, and the percent who reported problems with their marriage rose from 46 to 61. There apparently were specific aspects of marriages not covered by the questions that tended to improve from 1957 to 1976.

The most common reason given for the 1957-1976 increase in average marital happiness is that the steep increase in divorce beginning in 1965 improved the speed and effectiveness of the removal of persons in poor marriages from the married population. Since the divorce rate continued to rise after 1976 before leveling off at a very high level in the 1980s, there are reasons to suspect that the increase in marital happiness continued after 1976—a suspicion often voiced by commentators on marriage in the United States.

The best relevant data, however, indicate otherwise. The General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center have asked a simple marital happiness question of its married respondents annually since 1973, except in 1979, 1981, and 1992 (Davis and Smith, 1993). The question is worded, "Taking things all together, would you say that your marriage is very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" Fewer than 5 percent of the respondents have typically chosen the "not too happy" alternative, so the data are often collapsed into "very happy" versus less favorable responses. The 1973-1993 trend is shown in Figure 1, the linear trend line being distinctly downward, though only at the rate of .32 points per year.

The important thing about these findings is not that reported marital happiness declined moderately, but that it did not increase substantially, as it should have done if the main reason for the increase in divorce in recent decades was, as the sanguine view of U.S. marriage would have it, an increased reluctance of persons to endure poor marriages. Assuming the validity of the reports of marital happiness, the sanguine view is clearly indefensible; the increase in divorce must have resulted to a large extent from an increased tendency for marriages to go bad. This point is illustrated by the other two linear trend lines in Figure 1. The decline in the percent of persons in very happy marriages was steeper for all ever-married, nonwidowed persons (.60 points per year) and for all persons age thirty or older (.73 points per year) than for those currently married. Data on the trend in percent of ever-married, nonwidowed persons in marriages in which they reported to be "very happy" at various lengths of time after the first marriage indicate that a decreasing proportion of the persons in the United States who marry at least once are finding the marital happiness they seek (Glenn 1991, 1993). In addition, the increase in divorce has not even decreased the proportion of persons who say they are in less than happy marriages at various lengths of time after the first marriage.

One might speculate that the apparent decline in the prospects of achieving a good marriage is illusory and has resulted from an increased tendency of persons in unsatisfactory marriages to report the quality of their marriages honestly. There is no definitive evidence that this explanation is not correct, but if the validity of reports of marital happiness had increased, the relationship of reported marital happiness to variables likely to be affected by marital happiness should have increased; that did not happen. For instance, the relationship of reported marital happiness to reported global (personal) happiness remained virtually stable from 1973 to 1993.

Why has the probability of attaining happy and satisfying marriages in the United States declined? Since few commentators have recognized such a change or conceded that it has probably occurred, little has been written on the topic. Norval D. Glenn (1991) has speculated that a decline in the ideal of marital permanence has made persons less willing and less able to make the commitments, sacrifices, and "investments" of energy, time, and lost opportunities that are necessary to make marriages succeed. The breakdown in consensus about marital roles, whereby the terms of the marriage must be negotiated by each married couple and often must be renegotiated during the course of the marriage, has almost certainly contributed to the change, as have increased expectations of marriage. Disagreement over the division of household responsibilities has also emerged as a major cause of trouble in U.S. marriages (Berk 1985; Booth et al. 1984).

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