The 'satisfyingly normal' relationship

The decision whether we should stay in our intimate couple relationships or leave them is one of the most consequential and painful any of us ever has to make. On any given day, many millions of us could well be secretly turning the issue over in our minds as we go about our daily lives, with our partners beside us possibly having little clue as to the momentous decision weighing upon us.

This choice is perhaps more common now than it ever was. We expect to be deeply happy in love and therefore spend a good deal of time wondering whether our relationships are essentially “normal” in their sexual and psychological frustrations – or are beset by unusually pathological patterns which should impel us to get out as soon as we can.

Back in the day, it was probably way easier because there was probably way less choice and we probably weren’t really able to leave. Religions would insist that God blessed unions and He (or She) would be furious at them being torn apart. Society strongly disapproved of break-ups and cast separating parties into decades of shame and ostracism. And psychologists would explain that children would be deeply and permanently scarred by any termination in their parents’ relationship. But one by one, these objections to quitting have fallen away. Religions no longer terrify us into staying, society doesn’t care and psychologists routinely tell us that children would prefer a broken family to an unhappy one. The burden of choice therefore now falls squarely upon us.

Luckily for you my friends, I may be able to assist you with your questions about how “normal” your relationship actually is. For I have compiled some of the recent evidence and knowledge about long-term relationship satisfaction. I know, I really am good to you. I’ve even provided references.

  • When we first enter a committed couple relationship we generally report high initial relationship satisfaction (Glenn, 1998; Markman, Stanley & Blumberg, 2001; Lavner & Bradbury, 2010) and hope (and expect) that the relationship will be life-long (Millward, 1990).
  • Over time, relationships change. On average, people report lower levels of satisfaction and higher levels of negativity. This could be due, in part, to partners habituating to their relationship. For example, after the first ten years of marriage relationship satisfaction declines substantially (Holman, 2001).
  • When couples have a child, they experience the transition to parenthood. This brings many changes to their relationship, including more traditional gender role patterns of chore division, and even steeper declines in satisfaction (particularly if the pregnancy was a surprise). However, the presence of children is related to lower rates of divorce.
  • When children leave home, partners experience another transition. For some, satisfaction increases when this happens. However, for those who are relatively dissatisfied, the likelihood of divorce increases when their children leave home.
  • Increasingly, people are cohabiting. Cohabitation may be seen as a precursor to marriage, as an alternative to marriage, or it may be seen as completely separate from marriage. There is a large degree of variability in terms of how cohabitaters view cohabitation. The data on cohabiting couple relationships is much more limited than for married couples, but suggest that the rates of relationship problems and breakdown are substantially higher for cohabitating couples than for married couples (McDonald, 1995; Weston & Qu, 2007). People who cohabit before marriage also tend to have higher rates of divorce.
  • A substantial proportion of couples endure relationship distress before ending their marriage (Glenn, 1998; Holman, 2001). Although couples endure a lot of negative experiences before divorce, divorce is also related to negative outcomes. These include higher levels of depression, financial problems, and physical problems.
  • The divorce rate for first marriages is currently about 36% in Australia, with 2.3 divorces per 1000 residents in 2007 (ABS, 2013) and it is expected that divorce rates will continue to rise in the future (ABS, 2010). As painful as the experience of divorce is for many people, about 75% of divorced men and 66% of divorced women remarry within 3 years (Hahlweg, Baucom, Grawe-Gerber, & Snyder, 2010).  Unfortunately, the divorce rate in second marriages is even higher than in first marriages (Heatherington & Elmore, 2004). 
  • After divorce, people continue to value marriage. Most people who have divorced report a desire to marry again. However, second marriages are more likely than first marriages to end in divorce (Hahlweg, Baucom, Grawe-Gerber, & Snyder, 2010).
  • Marital experience is related to quality of life in old age. The more times people are married, the lower level of financial well-being they tend to have (Heatherington & Elmore, 2004).   Controlling for number of marriages, people who have spent more of their lives married tend to be healthier.

Did that clear it all up? In case you weren’t aware before, it really looks as if there’s not really such a thing as a “normal” and “satisfying” enduring relationship. This thing we call intimacy, is a dynamic thing. It flows and changes. We like our partner a lot and then less so. Our relationship meets our needs and then it doesn’t and then it does again. If we’re all so dissatisfied in couple relationships why do we stick it out? 

Most experts agree that a happy relationship affords us numerous benefits (Halford & Markman, 1997; Waite & Gallagher, 2000; Weston & Qu, 2007).  Being in a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship is a potent predictor of positive health and well-being for adult spouses and their children (Amato, 2000; Proulx, Helms, & Buehler, 2007).  Partners in satisfying relationships have been found to live longer (Ross, Mirowsky, & Goldsteen, 1990), report fewer health problems (Waite & Gallagher, 2000) and use health services substantially less, at around 25% lower costs per person (Prigerson, Maciejewski, & Rosenheck, 2000) than people in distressed relationships.  Stable marriages are associated with financial prosperity (Waite & Gallagher, 2000) and a low likelihood of needing government support (Thomas & Sawhill, 2005).  Furthermore, children who are raised by their own parent in the same home are advantaged on dimensions such as psychological adjustment and school attainment (Amato, 2000).

Conversely, marital distress is a generic risk factor for a variety of child and adult mental health problems (Bambling, 2007).  Relationship distress is strongly associated with lower levels of health, well being and finances in the spouses.  In a US national survey, the most frequently cited causes of acute emotional distress were relationship problems including separation and couple distress (Swindle, Heller, Pescosolido, & Kikuzama, 2000).  Relationship distress is positively associated with poor work performance, particularly for men in their first 10 years of marriage (Forthofer, Markman, Cox, Stanley, & Kessler, 1996); and in a study of clients seeking assistance with work-related concerns from employee assistance programs, two-thirds reported family problems as “considerable” or “severe” (Shumway, Wampler, Dersch, & Arredondo, 2004).

Relationship distress is also linked with the onset, course and poorer response to the treatment of individual adult psychiatric disorders.  Using data from over 2500 married participants of the National Comorbidity Survey, Whisman (2007) reported that marital distress was correlated with the 1-month prevalence rates of 12 specific psychiatric disorders.  In comparison to non-distressed individual patients, maritally distressed individuals are up to three times more likely to have a psychological disorder, including depression, alcohol abuse and anxiety disorders.

The reality of it is though that this is all the stuff of averages. Every relationship is unique. And every unique relationship will probably have periods of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. But the thing is people, as partners in this thing called love, we’re not just passive bystanders in our relationship. Our intimacy with our loved one is not something that just comes to us. Our level of satisfaction is not caused entirely by external factors. The level of dissatisfaction is not dependent solely on the other person.

All relationships face difficulties, and most are resolved over time. However when the problems become entrenched and seem unable to be solved, it is important to seek professional help. For many it can be far better to resolve the problems than to dissolve the relationship. Unfortunately, research shows that the average couple waits six years before seeking help once the problem is recognised, and only a small percentage seek the professional help they need. Half of all marriages that end do so in the first seven years. These statistics are very sad.

It is important that you seek help from someone who is trained and experienced in working with relationships. Most people ask friends for recommendations, and word of mouth is a good way to find help. You can also ask your GP for a recommendation or phone the APS Find a Psychologist service here or on 1800 333 497 (in Australia)

Help can also be found through organisations funded by the Australian Federal Government that employ psychologists and other professionals specialising in relationship counselling. Organisations such as Relationships Australia and Centacare all offer professional assistance.


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