Factors that Make a Difference in Marital Success

by Thomas R. Lee, PhD Department of Family and Human Development Utah State University, 2001


Most couples enter into marriage expecting to succeed. They look at the divorce statistics and believe those figures won't apply to them. And yet, somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of those marrying today will become part of the statistics.

Why do marriages fail? What contributes to success in marriage? For couples embarking on marriage, and for those already married, there are several important factors shown by research to make a difference.

Even before the marriage begins, several factors influence a couple's chances for success. Some are under the couple's control; others are not.

1. Parent's Marriage. If a couple's parents were happily married, the couple is more likely to be happily married and less likely to divorce. Of course, many individuals whose parents divorced are able to establish happy marriages, but the odds favor those with happily married parents.

2. Childhood. An individual who had a happy, "normal" childhood is more likely to be successful in marriage.

3. Length of Acquaintance. Generally, the longer the acquaintance, the more likely the marriage will be successful. Those who have known each other over one year have better odds than those with acquaintanceships less than a year.

4. Age. In general, those who are older when married have more stable marriages. For example, those who marry at 20 years or older have marriages that last twice as long as those who marry under age 20.

5. Parental Approval. Parental approval is related to marriage success for two reasons: 

1) approving parents are more supportive, and 

2) disapproving parents may be seeing real problems that will create difficulties for the couple.

6. Premarital Pregnancy. Marriages that are the result of pregnancy have a high rate of failure. Fifty percent end within five years.

7. Reasons for Marriage. Marriages begun because of genuine understanding and caring have better success than those started for the "wrong reasons," such as getting away from home, rebellion, or wanting to be "grown up."

Once a couple is married, additional factors tend to influence their likelihood of marital success.

1. Attitudes. A democratic attitude, where both seek to cooperate and compromise is most functional.

2. In-laws. Especially if couples live close to parents, getting along with in-laws is important.

3. Common Interests. Couples with shared interests are more likely to participate in activities together and develop greater understanding and empathy for each other.

4. Do Opposites Attract? In general, the more similar a couple's background in terms of education, religion, nationality, and social status, the better.

5. Children. Children strengthen an already strong marriage, but may only "hold together" a poor one.

6. Communication. Happily married couples tend to: 

(a) talk to each other more often 

(b) are more sensitive to each other's feelings, and 

(c) use non-verbal communication more effectively.

7. Roles. Similar expectations of work roles, housework roles, and spouse roles is one of the most important factors in marriage. If both spouses are traditional, that works wonderfully - as it does if both are more contemporary. The greatest conflicts occur when wives are more contemporary than husbands in what they consider the "right" roles for husbands and wives.

8. Personality. Obviously, the personality of the individuals involved is one of the most crucial factors. Traits such as emotional stability, self-control, affection, responsibility, favorable self-perception, and optimism are correlated with good marriage adjustment.

There are many factors related to background, upbringing, or circumstances that tend to be in a couple's favor for having a successful marriage. Many couples will not have all of these factors in their favor and will still have successful marriages. Some with the odds in their favor will fail, nevertheless. Part of the difference lies in the extent to which couples take care of their marriage. Every marriage needs thought and effort to improve.