A student once asked me, "Why would a couple want to have children when kids
mess up a marriage so much?" He had just been exposed to the well-documented
roller coaster of marital satisfaction reported in many textbooks on marriage
and family life.1
This roller coaster-an irregular V-shaped line (usually called the "U-shaped
curve")- plots a significant decrease in marital satisfaction beginning early
in marriage. Husbands' and wives' satisfaction with marriage appears to
continue sliding downhill to the time when teenage children are at home. At
that point in time, parents' satisfaction with their marriage apparently
reaches its lowest point. Later, when children leave home, the curve turns
dramatically upward, showing increased satisfaction with marriage.
of the most widely cited studies supporting the research described above was
published in 1983 by Olson and his colleagues. The study included couples at
various stages of family life, but all the information was gathered at the same
point in time. (This is called cross-sectional research.) So a couple whose
oldest child was 4 years old filled out the same questionnaire in the same
month as did another couples whose youngest child just left home. The graph
they created to illustrate their findings (Figure 1, to the right) has been
reproduced in several textbooks.
This generally accepted finding has led family scholars to conclude that this
"roller coaster" of marital satisfaction is reality for the majority of
However, these conclusions are based on research not appropriate to the issue
of marital satisfaction over the life span. Couples who have divorced are not
part of the samples used in this research. Their absence causes the average
scores to go "up" in the later stages of marriage for the remaining couples,
because only the more satisfied, still-married couples are left to participate
in the study. Thus, the U-shaped curve appears to take an upward turn.
It would be better to do longitudinal research, where the same couple would
fill out a questionnaire every few years to measure how their attitudes and
perceptions of family life change over time. Recent longitudinal research,
which follows the same couples over a period of time, has raised some important
questions about the U-shaped curve.
"Family Life Cycle" Limits
The research that examines satisfaction with marriage over time, resulting in
the U-shaped curve, uses the theory of a "family life cycle." The family life
cycle theory assumes that families, like individuals, have predictable stages
they go through. However, many scholars5
criticize the use of a single life-cycle pattern to understand families in
complex societies with various paths of family development. For example,
single-parent families and childless couples do not fit the stages of the
family life cycle.6
Also, the timing and order of family transitions do not always follow the
so-called family life cycle. A couple may have several children, resulting in
the theoretical presence of several stages of the family life cycle all at
once. Thus, considering the variations in family structure and transitions, it
is impractical and unwise to choose one pattern as the "normal" family life
Further, the stages are based primarily on parents and their childrearing
responsibilities, ignoring other aspects of family members' lives, which raises
questions about the conclusions drawn from the research.7
Many other things, such as occupation, extended family involvement, and
physical and emotional changes in marriage partners are ignored as possible
influences on marital development. In summary, the family life cycle only
describes families with children and ignores influences on the family and its
members not related to parenting and children. It cannot be used by itself to
explain changes in satisfaction with marriage.
these criticisms, the family life cycle idea remains popular. Almost every
family studies textbook continues to use it as a central organizing theme.
The Long Run is a Good Run
Much of the information family life educators teach their high school and
college students about the course of marital satisfaction over the family life
cycle is misleading. One misconception that influences discussions about the
U-shaped curve of marital satisfaction occurs because the steep, dramatic
slopes on the graph mislead the student to believe that people experience
steep, dramatic negative and then positive changes in satisfaction with
Even Olson, et al., whose graph of the pattern is often used as an illustration
(see Figure 1), reported, "these differences in satisfaction levels are small"
and "of little practical value."8
The graph is scaled to emphasize the slopes: the range of the graph is only
from 49 to 54. If the graph used the entire range of the marital satisfaction
scale, the U-shaped curve would be much shallower-more like a dip in the road
than a pothole. This is especially important considering that Olson, et al.,
found that a family's stage in the family life cycle explained only 1 percent
of the couples' levels of marital satisfaction. The authors stress in their
text that this is minimal. In spite of their words and in spite of the flawed
use of a cross-sectional study, the graph has a dramatic visual impact. Many
readers may be misled by the visual presentation despite explanations in the
Marriage Satisfaction is Sturdy
A close examination of the more recent, longitudinal studies of marital
satisfaction indicates that marriages experience modest, not dramatic, changes
over time. For example, Kurdek's analysis of the first four years of marriage
indicated that the average decrease in satisfaction with marriage among wives
was 1.80 on a scale ranging from 0 to 50. Husbands in the study had an average
decrease of 1.75 during the same time interval.9
In another study, White and Edwards analyzed the impact on satisfaction with
marriage of launching the last child. They found that, although the effect was
statistically significant, it was only a 1.10 point increase on the marital
With the scale ranging from 11 to 33, an increase of 1.10 is extremely modest.
Using other methods, Johnson, et al., found that what a person said about his
or her marriage at one point in time was highly correlated (.89 to .94 on a
1.00 scale) with what the same person said about his or her marriage at other
points in time. Indeed, the levels of stability remained high, regardless of
the length of marriage among the couples.11
A stable pattern of satisfaction with marriage over time seems to continue
throughout the course of marriage. Cole reported that the strongest predictor
of satisfaction with marriage in later life is the couple's level of
satisfaction in the early years of the marriage.12
Satisfying relationships generally continue to be happy over the course of the
marriage. These couples are able to adjust when they encounter transitions and
stress, while maintaining a satisfaction with the marriage.
Contribution of Family Systems Theory
Family systems theory suggests that relationships have considerable continuity
over time. When a marriage begins, the
husband and wife each develop ways of relating and subjective evaluations of
the relationship. Once these patterns are in place, the marriage develops a
sense of equilibrium, or balance. The established patterns of relating and
evaluation are remarkably unyielding to much change, even when stresses and new
situations are introduced into the marriage. Significant transitions, such as
the birth of a child, a child leaving home, or retirement may create some
fluctuation in the marriage, but after a period of adjustment, the couple
generally returns to their balanced patterns. Consequently, there is relative
stability and continuity in marriage over the life of the family.
Family systems theory contrasts to the family life cycle's focus on transitions
and change. However, studies suggest that both perspectives offer insight into
the course of satisfaction with marriage. Both stability and change
characterize marriages over time.13
Family systems theory and the family life-cycle perspective complement each
other to help us understand stability and change in satisfaction with marriage.
Both theories help us understand why the changes are generally modest and why
most marriages experience substantial continuity.
Don't Blame the Kids
One of the most destructive, misleading characteristics of the research using
the cross-sectional studies resulting in the U-shaped curve is that it
attributes dramatic negative changes in marital satisfaction to changes in
parenting responsibilities. As noted above, changes in satisfaction with
marriage are small, not dramatic. And because the stages in the family life
cycle are by definition linked to changes in the ages and activities of a
couple's children, there is no other related event (much less cause) available
to explain the small changes in satisfaction with marriage.14
The reasoning is circular-the child-related events
in a couple's life are used both to define and explain their satisfaction with
Longitudinal studies suggest that the decline in satisfaction with marriage
during the early years of the marriage is not caused by parenthood. Studies
that include control groups generally have found no differences between couples
making the transition to parenthood and comparable childless couples.15
Rather, any increased marital dissatisfaction at the time the first child is
born is most likely to be the result of issues that have existed since before
the marriage, and not the result of the transition to parenthood.16
In addition, scholars commonly assume that the low points in the U-shaped curve
are caused by the parental stresses of rearing adolescent children. However,
evidence from research suggests that other factors, in addition to the presence
of adolescents in the home, cause decreases in satisfaction with marriage
during this time. Steinberg and Silverberg interviewed 129 couples twice over a
year. They found that an emotionally distant relationship between a parent and
a same-gender adolescent child at the time of the first interview significantly
predicted lower marital satisfaction at the time of the second interview.
However, wives' concerns about personal midlife identity issues also predicted
lower levels of marital satisfaction at the second interview. These findings
suggest that parents' individual development also influences changes in the
quality of marriage over the life course in important ways.17
Cross-sectional research suggests that couples' employment and economic
conditions also have an influence on satisfaction with marriage during this
period of the family life cycle.18
The two studies that examine the "upturn" of the U-shaped curve
19 show some influence of "launching" children on satisfaction with
marriage. However, no longitudinal research addresses other sources of change
or influence on satisfaction with mid-life marriages at the same time children
are leaving home. Certainly we cannot attribute all of the modest changes in
marital satisfaction to children moving out of the house.
The Average Couple Isn't You
These findings, that the average marriage experiences a modest decline in
satisfaction during the first few years of marriage,
regardless of parental status, suggest that there is a "duration effect." That
is, there is a natural decline in reported satisfaction with marriage after the
honeymoon. Perhaps greater familiarity with the spouse, which comes with
extended interaction, leads to a more realistic appraisal of a partner's
positive and negative behaviors and traits. Further, differences in
expectations concerning marriage may lead to dissatisfaction. For various
reasons, there is typically a small decline in a couple's evaluation of their
relationship during the early years of marriage, regardless of their parenting
On the other hand, maybe you aren't the average couple. The U-shaped curve
represents the average of all the people in the study. This means that there
are probably some couples whose marital satisfaction goes up throughout their
marriages. But the "averaging" done by the statistical procedures used doesn't
How Parents and Teachers Can Help
Young people-especially those anticipating and preparing for marriage-seem to
be unaware of the misinterpretations of the U-shaped curve of marital
satisfaction. They may misinterpret the data and come to believe that children
cause unhappiness for married couples. Parents can help by assuring their
children that they are loved and welcome as part of the family and are not
responsible for any problems in their parents' marriage. Family life educators
must fully understand flaws in interpretation of the U-shaped curve in order to
provide a more complete picture to their students. Unfortunately, information
contained in family textbooks and used uncritically by family life educators is
likely to perpetuate misconceptions of the meaning of the U-shaped curve.
The implications of teaching the unsupported idea that children negatively
affect their parents' happiness are significant. The idea that a decline in
satisfaction with marriage is primarily due to becoming a parent can have a
negative influence on couples' attitudes toward having children. Likewise, it
would be unfortunate for young people to believe that the only cause of marital
struggles during the middle years is the presence of adolescent children in the
home. Such a conclusion uses the children as scapegoats while ignoring the many
issues that face mid-life adults and mid-life marriages.
The findings that marriages are generally characterized by continuity, in
addition to change, also have important implications for family life educators.
The early months and years of a marriage are crucial to developing a satisfying
relationship. These early ways of relating and the feelings and emotions that
develop about the marriage become fairly set. Although it is important to teach
students about the developmental stresses and challenges that require
adjustments in marriage, the adjustments need to be placed in the context of a
stable relationship. Most important, couples need to know that overall marital
satisfaction in long-term marriages is mostly positive-the dips are not
dramatic and wrenching, they are minor and gentle.
Although the U-shaped curve represents the "average" of many people's marital
satisfaction, it doesn't mean that couples are doomed to experience the same
downs and ups in their marriages. Many marriages continuously get better
throughout the marriage-even when children and teens are around. Research shows
that marriage satisfaction is generally quite stable over the life course, with
only modest changes. Parenting responsibilities, especially during the early
years of marriage, are not the primary cause of negative changes in
satisfaction with marriage. In other words, having children does not harm your
marriage in any significant way.
Clarifying these research findings will help teachers provide more accurate
information to their students and, it is to be hoped, increase love in families
as parents and children understand that children are not responsible for the
quality of their parents' relationship. A couple can prepare for transitions
and trials by forming positive ways of facing life together early in their
marriage. Their positive approaches to marriage and to each other will lend
stability and strength to the marriage throughout their lives.
Richard B. Miller, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Family
Life, Brigham Young University. This article was adapted from an article
published in Family Science Review 13 (12): 6073 (July 2000).
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3. David H. Olson, et al. (note 1, above), 22.
4. Norval D. Glenn, "Quantitative research on
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9. L. A. Kurdek, "Nature and prediction of changes
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14. J. Aldous (note 8, above).
15. L. White and A. Booth, "The transition to
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Cambridge University Press, 1998), 205236. One study, however, found that new
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16. Carolyn P. Cowan and Philip A. Cowan, When
Partners Become Parents (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000).
17. L. Steinberg and S. B. Silverberg,
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