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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Is Love a Flimsy Foundation for Marriage?

The common belief is that married couples benefit both in terms of their satisfaction and their relationship’s longevity from strong social and religious support systems. It also is rather commonly believed that couples today do not experience the levels of social support their married forebears took for granted.

Religious leaders, marriage experts and social commentators frequently lament a loss of support for couples, as well as for the very institution of marriage. But what does social support for marriage look like? Rarely do I come upon a detailed response to that question.

This fall, however, I found precisely such an analysis in a report titled “Is Love a Flimsy Foundation? Soulmate versus Institutional Models of Marriage.” Its authors are W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project located at the University of Virginia, and Jeffrey Dew, a social scientist at Utah State University.

The report appears in the September edition of the Social Science Research journal. Wilcox and Dew present the findings of a study they conducted to learn what model of marriage affords couples the greatest prospects of success today in terms of “stability, satisfaction and less conflict.”

1. Is it the soulmate marriage, which seems to define many couples’ expectations nowadays?

This “expressive” model of marriage is reinforced “by a popular culture that celebrates intense emotional relationships in music, movies, television and literature,” the authors explain. The soulmate marriage accents “each partner’s innermost needs or desires, a couple’s “emotional and sexual intimacy,” and the spouses’ sense of becoming fulfilled through their marriage. Some social commentators wonder what happens if the flame of love dims somewhat and the spouses’ sense of fulfillment diminishes.

2. Or is it what the authors term an “institutional” model of marriage, a “more scripted” model associated with “a series of norms” that guide the spouses’ conduct in their marital roles?

This model encourages couples to invest in each other and their relationship, but also “a number of other goods such as children, economic cooperation and their kin relationships.” The norms and roles associated with this model are reinforced by social networks of various kinds.

In the end, Wilcox and Dew conclude that “the couples who are most likely to succeed” today are those “who most embrace and are embraced by marriage-friendly norms, networks and institutions.” However, their study revealed “an important caveat,” leading them to speak of the importance of a “hybrid” marriage model.

It appears, the authors say, that the institutional model needs today to be “coupled with a proper appreciation for the expressive dimension of married life. … A neotraditional model of marriage that combines elements of the new and old seems most likely to engender success in today’s marriages.”

What most strongly captured my attention, however, was the report’s breakdown of the kinds of support that prove important for couples. The report suggests that “couples who enjoy the support of social networks and other institutions such as friends, extended family or religious congregations will be more likely to enjoy stable, high-quality relationships than couples who do not enjoy” such support for their marriages.

When I asked Wilcox about this, he said it is known that “strong marriages tend to be embedded in networks of friends and family members.” He stressed that “when friends and family — not to mention churches — are intentional about upholding marriage, marriage stays strong.” Otherwise, however, the risk of divorce rises.

So “friends and family need to realize that they can play a crucial role in helping their friends stay married by giving them wise counsel, emotional support and practical help when they need it,” Wilcox said.

There are “at least three reasons” why social networks are important in marriage, the Wilcox-Dew report observes. First, “these networks tend to reinforce role commitment to marital norms by lending legitimacy to them” and honoring couples who live by them.

Second, social networks “can lend social, emotional and financial support” when spouses struggle in their marriages or encounter other difficulties like unemployment or illness. In this way, social support may help reduce the stresses that “otherwise undercut a marriage.”

Third, social networks “can provide couples with models of strong marriages that inspire them to invest in their own marriages and to work through difficulties.”

The report says religious institutions can be important sources of social support for marriage. “A large body of social scientific literature indicates that religious belief and practice are positively associated with marital quality and stability,” it states.

One reason for this is that “religious faith is associated with the ‘sanctification’ of marriage, where spouses endow marriage with transcendent significance,” the report says. If spouses “see God as present in their marriages,” they “are motivated to invest themselves in their marriages.”

In addition, couples who are religious are “more likely to identify with relationship-related norms such as sexual fidelity, forgiveness and unconditional love – all of which tend to foster good marriages.”

Finally, “churches situate couples in social networks that lend normative and social support to their relationships,” the report notes.

But it cautions that some social networks go wrong, offering negative support. In other words, some social structures might tend to legitimize “bad behavior in marriages” — abusive behavior, for example.

Thus, the report accents the need for “marriage-friendly social structures.” The authors affirm that couples benefit when they are “embedded in social structures” that support the goals of strong, happy, lasting marriages.