Clear decisionmaking makes for better marriage

  • Article by: TARA PARKER-POPE , New York Times
  • Updated: August 30, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Clear discussions and decisions may be key to couples staying together.

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talk it out: Couples in the study who let inertia carry them through major transitions had poorer marriages.

Photo: Stuart Bradford • New York Times,

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Do you have a decisive marriage?

New research shows that how thoughtfully couples make decisions can have a lasting effect on the quality of their romantic relationships. Couples who are decisive before marriage — intentionally defining their relationships, living together and planning a wedding — appear to have better marriages than couples who simply let inertia carry them through major transitions.

“Making decisions and talking things through with partners is important,” said Galena K. Rhoades, a relationship researcher at the University of Denver and co-author of the report. “When you make an intentional decision, you are more likely to follow through on that.”

While the finding may seem obvious, the reality is that many couples avoid real decisionmaking. Many couples living together, for instance, did not sit down and talk about cohabitation. Often one partner had begun spending more time at the other’s home, or a lease expired, forcing the couple to formalize a living arrangement.

“Couples who slide through their relationship transitions have poorer marital quality than those who make intentional decisions about major milestones,” Rhoades and her colleagues wrote.

The research stems from a study that began with 1,294 young adults ages 18-34 recruited to the Relationship Development Study in 2007 and 2008. Over the next five years, 418 of the individuals in the study married, offering the researchers a glimpse into the lives and decisionmaking of couples before and after marriage.

The researchers collected data on prior romantic experiences, whether the relationship started by “hooking up” in a casual relationship, whether the couple had a big or small wedding, and what the overall quality of the marriage was.

Notably, they found that the decisions and experiences with others before marriage had a lasting effect on the relationship. In the study group, most people had sex before marriage, reporting an average of five sexual partners. But 23 percent of the subjects had only one sexual partner, their eventual spouse. Those individuals reported higher marriage quality than people who had had multiple sexual partners.

People who lived with another person before marrying also reported a lower-quality relationship. In that group, 35 percent had higher-quality marriages. Among those who had not lived with another romantic partner before marriage, 42 percent had higher-quality marriages.

The finding is counterintuitive, given that experience navigating relationships should leave one better equipped to manage conflict and sustain a marriage. But past romantic experience can also be a reminder that there are other options.

“Prior relationship experience leaves some kind of imprint on us that we carry forward,” Rhoades said. “We compare new partners to old partners.”

The larger lesson from the study, the authors say, is that couples should make active decisions about their relationships and major life events, rather than drifting through one year after another. Showing intent in some form — from planning the first date, to living together, to the wedding and beyond — can help improve the quality of a marriage overall.

“At the individual level, know who you are and what you are about, and make decisions when it counts rather than letting things slide,” said Scott Stanley, a research professor at the University of Denver and co-author of the study.

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