Marriage is an alliance entered into by a man who can’t sleep with the window shut, and a woman who can’t sleep with the window open. — George Bernard Shaw
According to a recent article in USA Today, the number of divorces amongst couples 50 or older doubled from 1990 to 2010. As children leave the nest and we continue to evolve into a nation of two-earner households, long-time married couples have become more willing to call it quits.
It’s no secret that divorce has become a more acceptable way of life in every age group. Even if you hail from a stable family and most of the people you know are married, you only need go to the movies to catch an easy glimpse of how marriage has changed. America has shifted its domestic narrative from the Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed characters in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), to the Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence characters in American Hustle (2013).
George Bailey and Mary Hatch Bailey (Stewart and Reed) ultimately manage to work out the challenges to their marriage. But Irving and Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Bale and Lawrence) have forged a marriage of another sort — one unfortunately too common of late. The couple fight, they make love, they fight again, they part, they get back together, they betray one another, they part for good. In all fairness, the Baileys have some help from the intervention of a guardian angel, whereas the Rosenfelds are forced to contend with the intervention of the FBI.
Have Americans become less resilient husbands and wives?
In view of this seismic shift in the stability of American marriage, can there be any hope for us? With easier access to "alternative" lifestyles and different mates, have we become too much like the Rosenfelds to want to put up with each other anymore? Have we become less resilient husbands and wives?
Enter Erica Slotter. Slotter is an assistant professor of psychology, and lead researcher in a new study of relationships conducted at Villanova University, just outside Philadelphia. Writing in a January 6, 2014 Wall Street Journal article, Elizabeth Bernstein discusses research by Slotter and her staff that reveals how we can bring about noticeable changes in the behavior of our mates — by changing our own behavior.
Writes Bernstein: “Studies show that when a person is motivated to be in a relationship and wants it to work, he or she will readily change to be more like their partner. Often, they don't even know they are adjusting their own behavior.”
If this finding sounds more like something grandmom once lectured you about than science, it’s worth considering how the Villanova researchers reached their conclusions. Each subject shows up at the lab with a partner. They then rate themselves on specific attributes. The partner leaves the room. A partner (called a “confederate”) then enters the room, and makes a statement about a particular attribute for which the subject had given himself or herself a low rating.
Slotter’s group discovered that participants gradually rated their preferences higher for those attributes reported as strong ones by the confederate. Over time, the study showed the subjects adapting to the confederates by raising the values on the attributes they had at first rated minimally. Researchers’ conclusion? People will adapt to others’ behavior over time.
The issue not addressed by the study is the newness factor. Will a man or a woman value an attribute in a new person (a “confederate”) more than they do in a mate they've been with for a long time? We can only hazard a guess. Still, one hopes, with a bit of optimism and some effort at home, we can turn the winds of marital change back in time just a bit from the Rosenfelds of American Hustle to the Baileys of It’s a Wonderful Life.