To this series of posts I’ve made on differences (or the lack thereof) between men and women in romantic relationships and marriage, I want to add a finding from a study we conducted in our lab at the University of Denver. In 2002, we published a study based on a national survey, in which we presented analyses on all sorts of dynamics in marriage, including about commitment, communication, and conflict (Stanley, Markman, & Whitton, 2002). One of the analyses we conducted looked at the associations between thinking about divorce and ratings of either global positivity or ratings of negativity. Global positivity included ratings of satisfaction, sensual connection, talking as friends, and having fun with one’s mate. Negativity was measured by what we call Communication Danger Signs, including the tendency to escalate when arguments break out, using put downs, feeling one’s partner sees your motives more negatively than they are, and the degree to which one or both partners pull away during conflicts. You could think of the positivity measure as reflecting the overall quality of connection and the negativity measure as reflecting the level of conflict and hassled in the relationship.
What we found was a pretty strong difference in men and women on what was most strongly linked to thoughts of divorce. Take a moment and guess which way this went. I bet you can do it.
We found that, for women, ratings on positive connection explained twice as much variance in thinking about divorce as did negativity. For men, it was just the opposite, with negativity explaining almost four times as much variance in thinking about divorce than positivity. To put that more simply: Thinking about leaving one’s marriage was associated more with an absence of positive connection for women and the presence of negative interaction for men.
Men start to wonder if it’s going to work out when there are a lot of hassles and negatives with their mates. Women start to wonder if it’s going to work out when there is the absence of positives with their mates. Does that seem like different planets? In a way it does, because this type of finding (and there are others like it) suggest that men and women have--at least historically--looked for something different in what they want most to feel their marriages are working out.
The sample from the study we published in 2002 is from the mid 1990s. It’s quite possible that we’d get a different result today. (And, we may examine this type of association again soon in a much more recent sample of unmarried individuals in serious, romantic relationships.) If you’d like to think in terms of one planet, the overall conclusion you could make is straightforward: Marriages thrive when there is both solid positive connections and lower levels of negative interaction. It’s worth thinking about how you can move both in the right direction in your own relationship, regardless of if the two of you fit any stereotype or not. After all, you live in the same zip code regardless of what planet you are on.