Strength and strain in marriage.

Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with the classic sentence, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Recent studies on the social psychology of close relationships suggests that Tolstoy’s aphorism may be true, particularly when applied to marriages and other long-term intimate relationships.

David Ludden, Ph.D.,David Ludden, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College. He received his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University of Iowa, and is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach. He will be focusing on the role that language plays in human psychology–from perception to persuasion, from attention to attitudes, from motor skills to mental states.


Editor: Nadeem Noor

Plenty of research has shown that happy marriages are associated with better health and increased life span for both spouses, while those in unhappy relationships suffer all sorts of negative health consequences. In an attempt to explain how close relationships affect health and happiness, social psychologists Richard Slatcher and Emre Selcuk have developed the “Strength and Strain” model of marriage. Many factors influence the outcome of a relationship, but Slatcher and Selcuk identify four that impact long-term health and well-being:

  • Individual differences. The personality and cultural background of each partner has a big effect in shaping the relationship. Especially important is each person’s attachment style. (More below.)
  • Marital strain. A couple's level of hostility, conflict, and neglect obviously has a negative impact on relationship quality.
  • Marital strength. The degree of social support, intimacy, and commitment each partner gives the other positively impacts the quality of the relationship.
  • Outside stressors. Work, financial pressures, and chronic illness all put a strain on any marriage. Also counted here is the stress of child-rearing, since the kids are technically outside the intimate relationship.

These four factors interact in myriad and sundry ways, and many are outside the control of the partners. But Slatcher and Selcuk identify several behavioral patterns that spouses can become aware of—and change—to improve their relationship.

For example, the team's research has identified partner responsiveness as a significant predictor of long-term health over a 10-year period. When your wife initiates a conversation, do you turn your attention toward her, or do you zone out? When your husband puts his arm on your shoulder, do you lean into him or pull away?

No one can be responsive 100 percent of the time, but partners need to know that they can generally rely on their mate to be there for them. And when you can’t respond in kind, at least acknowledging your partner’s bid for attention goes a long way. People who trust their partners to be responsive show lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while those who don’t get the partner responsiveness they need show elevated levels. Since cortisol regulates the immune system, the chronic stress that people experience when they’re routinely ignored or rejected can ruin their health.

Social support is vital for both physical and psychological well-being. And for the most part, the more social support partners receive, the happier and healthier they are. However, what’s important here is not the actual amount of support provided. Some couples have “low maintenance” relationships in which they give little to each other while demanding little in return, and they’re both quite satisfied. Other couples have “high maintenance” relationships in which they’re highly interdependent and are quite happy that way.

What’s key here is the perception of how much social support is given, not the actual amount: When partners feel that they’re receiving the attention they need, their cortisol levels go down—and the opposite occurs when they don’t get what they need.

Ironically, Slatcher and Selcuk have found cases in which increases in support from partner A have led to increases in stress for partner B. These are cases in which partner B is so insecure in the relationship that when partner A gives more, it’s interpreted negatively or viewed as a threat: “Why is he being so nice to me now?” or, “What is she trying to hide?”

This observation leads to another important set of behaviors that impact relationship satisfaction and long-term health. This has to do with attachment style. The term “attachment” refers to the deep emotional bond that forms between mother and infant during the weeks and months after birth. Most babies develop a secure attachment style, viewing mom as a reliable source of support, as well as a safe base from which to explore the world.

Sometimes mothers can’t provide the emotional support their babies need, whether due to illness, postpartum depression, or severe environmental stressors. In such cases, babies will develop one of two types of insecure attachment: Babies with anxious attachment fuss and cry and make ever increasing demands, and they’re rarely soothed even when their mom does pay attention to them. Other babies, however, learn at an early age to soothe themselves, and they don’t seem to care whether mom’s around or not, so long as their physical needs are met. In other words, these babies develop an avoidant attachment with their caregivers.

The attachment style we develop in infancy carries forward into adulthood; that is, we treat our relationship with our primary caregiver as the model for our grown-up relationships. When two securely-attached adults tie the knot, the result is likely a marriage that’s heaven on earth. These are Tolstoy’s happy families that are all alike.

When one partner is insecurely attached, however, problems will likely ensue. On the one hand, the avoidant spouse demands little but also gives little—probably much less than the other partner expects. On the other hand, the anxious spouse is never satisfied, no matter how much the other partner gives. I’m not sure which union descends to a lower circle of hell—a marriage between two anxious types, or one between an anxious and an avoidant. I suspect, though, that a relationship between two avoidant persons can be reasonably satisfying, even if it isn’t deeply intimate.

Still, there’s hope for Tolstoy’s unhappy families: Although we carry our attachment styles with us into adulthood, we can still strive for a well-adjusted relationship. As Slatcher and Selcuk point out, marriage counseling has a good success rate in helping insecurely attached partners overcome the behaviors that are ruining their marriages. The anxiously attached can learn to tone down their neediness and trust their partners at a rational level, even if they don’t feel it emotionally. Likewise, those with avoidant attachment can learn to give more than they feel they should, and to accept more than they think they want.

If you find yourself in one of Tolstoy’s unhappy families, first consider your own attitudes and behaviors. By changing the things that are under your control, you shift the dynamics of your relationship. You might even find your partner changing in response.