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Marital Typologies

Using Scientific Methods To Create Typologies

In more recent years, an effort has been made to classify marriages into one type or another based on systematic scientific observations of marriages. Probably the most comprehensive marriage typology was developed using a computer-scored questionnaire (Olson and Fowers 1993). David H. Olson and his colleagues used a questionnaire called ENRICH to evaluate marriage relationships along nine dimensions: personality issues, communication, conflict resolution, financial management, leisure activities, sexual relationship, children and parenting, family and friends, and religious orientation. This typology meets the "exhaustive" criteria because it examines nine areas of the relationship before determining the marital type. The couples' responses were also used to help specify which aspect of their relationship might be a strength and which aspect of their relationship might be an area for growth. This study yielded five different types of marriages: devitalized, conflicted, traditional, harmonious, and vitalized.

The first and most common type was labeled a devitalized marriage. The devitalized marriage was primarily characterized as dissatisfaction with all nine dimensions of the relationship. These couples were overall more likely to be dissatisfied with their relationship and likely to have considered divorce. The second type was labeled a conflicted marriage. Partners in these marriages were dissatisfied with communication, conflict resolution, their partner's personality, and their sex lives. However, they were satisfied with their children, religious lives, and the use of leisure time within their marriages. Dissatisfaction stemmed most often from things within the relationship, and satisfaction was obtained from things outside the relationship. The third type of union was characterized as a traditional marriage. Traditional couples were dissatisfied with communication, conflict resolution, and sex, yet they were satisfied with family and friends, religion, and leisure time. They were one of the most satisfied of all types in how they handled their children and parenting duties. Partners in the fourth type, harmonious marriages, were self-focused and tended to be unions in which the couple was highly satisfied with their sex lives, leisure time, and finances. Dissatisfaction within harmonious marriages arose for the most part from interaction with their children and family, and their friendships with others. The last type, vitalized marriages, demonstrated the highest levels of satisfaction across all nine dimensions.

To examine the usefulness of this typology with different ethnic groups, William Allen (1997) sampled a group of 450 African-American couples who completed the ENRICH questionnaire. The study results yielded the same five couple types, with similar percentages of couples in each type. This lends credibility to the notion that Olson's typology is useful in describing more than merely Caucasian marriages.

One strength of this typology is that nine different marital dimensions are evaluated before a couple is assigned to a type. An additional strength is the ENRICH questionnaire. This assessment, used by thousands of couples since 1986, is accepted as a valid and reliable way to examine marital and premarital relationships. This typology can also be useful to clergy and marital counselors who are helping couples improve their marriages, because it highlights specific areas of the relationship that need work. It gives a clear understanding of both the strong and weak areas of a relationship. Finally, this typology demonstrates clearly that couples can be satisfied with some dimensions of their marriage, yet dissatisfied with other aspects.

It is evident by this brief discussion that the study of marriage has generated many different typologies that all attempt to describe marriage. Only one typology, however, has been practically useful in not only describing marriage but predicting marital stability, whether a couple will divorce or whether they will stay together (Gottman 1994).

Gottman and his colleagues observed couples in conflictual conversations, and from these observations divided couples into five different types (Gottman 1999; Gottman and Levenson 1992). Three of these marriage types (validating, volatile, and avoidant) were stable and, thus, not likely to divorce. The other two types (hostile-engaged and hostile-detached) were unstable and on the path toward divorce.

Validating couples avoided conflict unless there was a very serious issue in the marriage. When conflict did arise, there were high levels of validation. Validation was defined as minimal vocal responses from the listener such as "mmmmhmmm" or "yeah" that provided feedback that the speaker should continue, and demonstrated the partner was listening and wanted to understand the point of view of the speaker. Volatile couples valued their individuality more than the marriage, and allowed each partner more time for privacy. They thrived on conflict and were free to express their disagreements. Husbands and wives expressed high levels of both positive and negative feelings within their conflict. Avoidant couples minimized marital conflict. They were distant from each other, with low levels of sharing and companionship. They valued their own separate space and desired high levels of independence. In all three of the stable types of marriages, partners had both positive and negative interactions with each other. However, the stable couples had much higher levels of positive than negative interaction.

Hostile-engaged couples experienced high levels of overt conflict. One partner complained and criticized, and the other responded defensively. Neither seemed to understand the point of view of the partner. Hostile-detached couples engaged in a type of guerrilla warfare. Although they typically led very emotionally separate and independent lives, they got into brief encounters of attack and defend. When not attacking, the listener would nonverbally communicate disinterest, coldness, and disapproval of the conflict. Disinterest was referred to as stonewalling, typically a male behavior showing a lack of interest in the message of the speaker.

The unstable couples resolved their conflicts in primarily negative ways. They rated their conflicts as more serious and felt more negative during their conflicts than the stable couples. Unstable couples were less satisfied with their marriages, more likely to have been thinking about divorce, and more likely to have already separated than were the stable couples.

Gottman's typology demonstrated that all stable marriages were not alike. Similarly, there were also considerable differences among unstable marriages. Neither intense conflict nor conflict avoidance were necessarily problematic marital patterns. For a marriage to be stable, negative communication needed to be offset by about five times as much positive communication. Still, a high level of negative interaction did not in itself lead to divorce unless there was little positive in the relationship. Even withdrawal and expressions of criticism and defensiveness did not lead to divorce if they were combined with high levels of positive interaction.

If the process of classifying marriages is to be useful, it must be able to describe marriages across cultures. In reality, few empirically derived typologies have attempted to test these classification systems across cultures. However, Guy Bodenmann, John Gottman, and John Backman (1997) explored the applicability of Gottman's typology with a sample of Swiss marriages. Although marriage relationships in the two cultures differed, with the divorce rate in Switzerland about half of that in the United States, the typology was useful in classifying the same five couple types. This study provided initial support that Gottman's typology of marriage was useful in classifying couples beyond North America.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesMarital Typologies - Elements Of A Good Typology Of Marriage, The Proliferation Of Marriage-related Typologies, Using Logical Methods To Create Typologies