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Marital Typologies

Problems With Marital Typologies

Typologies are useful because they group similar types of marriages into one category. This process brings order to the study of marriage and provides a language that describes the similarities and differences among marriages. Though current typologies are useful, no marital classification system clearly meets all of the characteristics of a good typology.

Although marital scholars have made strides in creating and refining typologies, the scientific community has not come to a consensus on any one typology. In order for the typological study of marriage to progress there must be agreement on the behaviors and characteristics the typology should describe and the system needs to be adopted by a significant number of marital scholars. In contrast, classification systems have been more widely accepted in the natural sciences. For example, within the biological sciences there is agreement on a classification system that is widely adopted by biologists. Thus, each species can be classified by certain characteristics common to the kingdom, phylum, genus, and species. This classification system and common language is agreed upon within the biological community and is useful in the communication process. Similarly, those who study marriage relationships must develop a classification system that includes the important behaviors and characteristics of most marriages. If marital scholars could develop and agree upon such a typology, it would create a useful language that scholars could use in their study and treatment of marriage relationships.

The current marital typologies often fail to promote the clarity that a classification system should provide. For example, validating marriages share a group of common characteristics yet still differ along many dimensions, thus validating marriages are not all the same. When researchers assign a marriage within a typology, they often lose sight of the uniqueness of the marriages among that type. This being the case, some scholars believe that typologies actually blur reality rather than describe it more clearly (Hall and Lindzey 1985). Although a typology does help to describe marriage in an understandable way, it may simplify the complexity of marriage too much.

The difficulty of capturing several dimensions of a marriage creates difficult measurement challenges. To date, the two most widely used typologies are those developed by Gottman and Olson. Gottman has combined multiple methods to assign couples to a type including self-report surveys, laboratory observations, physiological measurements, and couple interviews. However, his focus has been on one main dimension of marriage: how couples handle conflict. Gottman's typology could be strengthened if it examined a greater number of marital characteristics rather than only conflict. In contrast, Olson has surveyed large numbers of couples along the nine dimensions of marriage, but his only method to assign couples to a type has been self-report surveys. Olson's typology could be strengthened if he would use more than one method in the assignment of couples to the type. Focusing on core dimensions of the marriage relationship using multiple methods of measurement strengthens the typology because it recognizes the complexity in the assignment process.

An additional problem arises when the spouses disagree on which typology best describes their marriage. For example, Douglas Snyder and Gregory Smith (1986) found that almost 50 percent of couples disagreed about which typology most accurately described their marriage. This may be evidence of the fact that there are really two perspectives of the same marriage—his marriage, as the husband sees it, and her marriage, as the wife sees it. A good typology should place the couple into one category only.

Typologies also present only a still-life snapshot of marriage, when in reality marriages change over time and across situations. A relationship that is categorized as vital at one point in time may be characterized as conflict-habituated later on because of changes that have taken place. In fact, marriages are typically dynamic and can change considerably over time. Research done on the first year of marriage indicates that partners' feelings of love for each other (as well as their hugging, kissing, and affection) decrease, while conflict increases (Huston, McHale, and Crouter 1986). Marriages also change when new members are added to the family as a result of a birth, or when a spouse retires. Therefore, although a typology is useful to describe a marriage at a given point in time, it is not helpful for describing how marriages change over time.

Last, and potentially the most challenging issue facing those who study marriage, is the feasibility of a typology that is useful across cultures. Can a single typology adequately capture the differences that exist in marital relationships across cultures? Studies must continue to examine the usefulness of existing typologies in describing marriages beyond the boundaries of 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