When is a marriage likely to go bad? Just about as soon as it begins--in the first year or two.
Troubled marriages, researcher Karen Kayser has found, follow a pattern. While these marriages may endure for many years, even decades, there are problems from the beginning.
"I think what starts that process going is the sense that this isn't the person they thought they married," says Kayser, an associate professor of social work at Boston College and a marital and family therapist. "So they're disillusioned and disappointed in their partner. It could be that they were going into the marriage not fully seeing the whole picture of their partner--maybe just seeing what they wanted to see--and projecting an ideal. Then they find out this isn't the person they thought."
That kind of letdown happens to a lot of people. The difference is that some couples find a way to deal with it. Others do not handle problems effectively at this early stage--or perhaps simply have made a bad choice in a partner--and are on the road to trouble.
It's often needless.
Kayser conducted a study of spouses who no longer loved their partners, interviewing them at length about how their love diminished. She also conducted a large random study of couples to compare differences in the marriages of those who still loved their partners and those who did not. Kayser wrote a book for therapists, "When Love Dies" (Guilford, 1993), about her findings.
She sees three stages to a dying marriage: initial disappointment, a middle phase of intense hurt and anger, and disaffection, marked by anger, apathy and hopelessness.
"The people in my study who obviously were angry at their partners often did not express their discontent at the beginning and just let it build," Kayser says. "You get the sense, especially in the middle phase, that there are longstanding resentments and bitterness, to the point where in the last phase, it seems there's almost nothing that can be done" to restore love.
Another red flag, she says, is that as time went on, people "shifted the responsibility for the problems from themselves and things outside their marriage they have no control over, to their partner."
The most common reasons people became disaffected, Kayser found, were a spouse's being controlling and discounting their feelings and opinions, a lack of emotional intimacy, and an ineffective style of handling conflict.
Those are the very problems that can be helped with social skills training, in which couples learn to talk problems through, listen to one another and compromise. (It doesn't work for everyone--some people can learn the skills and use them with everyone but the spouse. That indicates a deeper problem and a need for therapy, Kayser says.)
This is best done before resentment builds. But couples just starting out are the least likely to seek help. Research on programs that teach problem-solving skills to couples before marriage show most who are offered them decline.
"There's a cultural myth you don't have to work at a marriage," Kayser says, a result of the culture's obsession with the idea of romantic love.