Can science really predict divorce? Can science really tell you how to select the “right” partner? A recent post by Chris Matyszczyk brought a sarcastic and ironic view about the finding of a marriage study. Chris claimed, according to this study, the perfect wife is five years younger than her husband, is from the same cultural background, and is at least 27 percent smarter than her husband.
Sounds ridiculous? Yes. If people try to over-generalize certain research findings to general population in any situation by ignoring its specific subjects and applicable context, or make prediction based on correlational studies, it’s possible that they will always obtain disappointing or ridiculous results. Then, how should we think about the scientific findings on complicated human phenomena, such as marriage? What does science tell us about marriage?
Gottman & Notarius (2002) reviewed the advances made in the 20th century in studying marriages. The first published research study on marriage dealt with one major research question, “What is fundamentally different about happily and unhappily married couples?” Following that, with the development of more sophisticated measures and methods, some grim and interesting findings began emerging from research on marriage. For example, in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, Burgess’ longitudinal study (Burgess & Wallin, 1953) found that, for most couples, marital satisfaction was high right after the wedding and then began a slow, steady, and nontrivial decline thereafter. Another example is Hicks and Platt’s (1970) decade-review article on marital happiness and stability which concluded that “perhaps the single most surprising finding to emerge from research is that children tend to detract from, rather than contribute to marital happiness”. Then, research in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the realization of many secular changes in the American family, including the changing role of women, social science’s discovery of violence and incest in the family, and the beginning of the study of cultural variation in marriages et al.
In sum, marriage as an ultimate human condition has been intriguing to both scientists and common people for a long time. However, when we try to understand and interpret research findings on marriage, we need to be very careful about their applicable conditions and limitations. For example, as we know, psychological studies have relied on samples of convenience that have limited generalizability. Although based on the evidence we have so far, marital relations haven’t yet succumbed to delightfully efficient approaches, scientific findings keep shedding light on the mystery of human marriage.