Item from the Smart Marriages Archive, reproduced in the Divorce Statistics Collection

Thursday, March 30, 2000
Happily Ever After . . . Maybe
BYU Professor Says Evaluate Your Relationship Before Marriage
By Carma Wadley Deseret News senior writer

You meet someone. You fall in love. You get married. You live happily
ever after.

Ah, if only it were that easy, says Jeffry H. Larson, professor and
chairman of the Family and Marriage Therapy Program at Brigham Young
University.

The truth is, he says, some couples need more time to mature, some
have to work through specific issues and others should never be together.

How do you know if the couple you're a part of fits one of those
categories? What factors contribute most to success -- or failure -- in a
relationship?

After 20 years of his own research -- and years of work done by
others -- Larson has a few answers. His recently published book, "Should
We Stay Together?" (Jossey-Bass, $25), offers prospective couples some
scientifically proven methods for evaluating their relationships and
improving their chances for long-term success.

Larson shared some of those ideas with conference participants at a
national marriage and family conference held recently at BYU. The
conference theme was "Revitalizing the Institution of Marriage of the 21st
Century."

As we enter the new century, we've learned a lot about what goes into
a successful marriage, says Larson. "Sixty years of research suggests that
relationships develop at a number of levels and that certain criteria can
help predict success and failure."

Out of that he has developed what he calls "The Marriage Triangle,"
which highlights the individual traits, the couple traits and the family
background and context that can help or hinder a relationship.

Let's look first, he says, at the factors that predict marital
dissatisfaction. These are the three sides of the triangle:

Individual traits
1. High neurotic traits.
2. Anxiety.
3. Depression.
4. Impulsiveness.
5. Self-consciousness.
6. Vulnerability to stress.
7. Anger/hostility.
8. Dysfunctional beliefs. (If you enter marriage convinced that you
live on different planets, or that you'll never understand each other, he
says, you probably won't.)

Couple traits
1. Dissimilarity.
2. Short acquaintanceship.
3. Premarital sex (especially a lot of experience with many different
partners).
4. Premarital pregnancy.
5. Cohabitation.
6. Poor communication and conflict-resolution skills.

Context
1. Younger age.
2. Unhealthy family-of-origin experiences.
3. Parental divorce or chronic marital conflict.
4. Parental or friends' disapproval.
5. Pressure to marry.
6. Little education or career preparation.

Some of these are things couples have little control over. "You can't
change your family background. But you can do things to change the effects
that has on you; you can work through issues. In some cases, it's not so
much the events as how you think about them."

The couple traits are probably the easiest to work on, he says. "But
most things can be changed. Severe cases may need therapy." He remembers
one couple he worked with, where it turned out that both of them were
clinically depressed. "They were brave enough to send out cancellation
notices just days before the wedding. Now they are both involved with
other people and much happier and healthier.

It takes guts to confront some of these issues, he says. But the time
to do it is before -- not after -- the marriage.

On the other side of the triangle, says Larson, are the leading
factors that predict marital satisfaction:

Individual traits
1. High self-esteem.
2. Flexibility.
3. Assertiveness.
4. Sociability.

Couple traits
1. Similarity.
2. Long acquaintanceship.
3. Good communication skills.
4. Good conflict resolution skills/style.

Context
1. Older age.
2. Healthy family-of-origin experiences.
3. Happy parental marriage.
4. Parental and friends' approval.
5. Significant education and career preparation.

These, too, are things couples can work on, says Larson. For example,
research has shown that the better acquainted a couple is, the higher the
marital satisfaction. So, here are some exercises to test that
acquaintanceship:

List your partner's five most important life goals.

Discuss how you well you know your partner with others. How does your
experience compare with theirs?

Write a description of how well you know your partner as well as your
blind spots.

Look at how familiar you are with your partner's current
life-stressors.

If you go through these exercises together, you may learn a lot about
each other. Then you can set goals for improvement. And you can do this
for each of the traits.

"The more you can increase your knowledge and understanding of your
partner, the better off you'll be," says Larson. It takes some time, but
that time is important. Don't be like the couple he just heard about who
had decided they were lifetime partners -- after
one four-hour date.

"Go slower. Talk about more important and meaningful topics," he
advises. His recommendation is that couples be acquainted for a minimum of
a year before they consider marriage."Your best resources," he says, "are
time, self-disclosure and listening skills."

And, he says, if he had to choose one trait that would help the most
in building a relationship it would be flexibility. That one thing can
take care of a lot of potential problems.

With effort and commitment and caring, couples can find that "happily
ever after," after all, he says.

Just don't expect it to be easy.


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