77 Relationships

Intimate Relationships

Happy Asian-American couple smiling at each other.Single or Spouse-free? The number of adults who remain single has increased dramatically in the last 30 years. We have more people who never marry, more widows and more divorcees driving up the number of singles. Singles represent about 25 percent of American households. Singlehood has become a more acceptable lifestyle than it was in the past and many singles are very happy with their status. Whether or not a single person is happy depends on the circumstances of their remaining single.

Stein’s Typology of Singles

Many of the research findings about singles reveal that they are not all alike. Happiness with one’s status depends on whether the person is single by choice and whether the situation is permanent. Let’s look at Stein’s (1981) four categories of singles for a better understanding of this.

Voluntary temporary singles: These are younger people who have never been married and divorced people who are postponing marriage and remarriage. They may be more involved in careers or getting an education or just wanting to have fun without making a commitment to any one person. They are not quite ready for that kind of relationship. These people tend to report being very happy with their single status.

Voluntary permanent singles: These individuals do not want to marry and aren’t intending to marry. This might include cohabiting couples who don’t want to marry, priests, nuns, or others who are not considering marriage. Again, this group is typically single by choice and understandably more contented with this decision.

Involuntary temporary: These are people who are actively seeking mates. They hope to marry or remarry and may be involved in going on blind dates, seeking a partner on the internet or placing “getting personal” aids in search of a mate. They tend to be more anxious about being single.

Involuntary permanent: These are older divorced, widowed, or never-married people who wanted to marry but have not found a mate and are coming to accept singlehood as a probable permanent situation. Some are bitter about not having married while others are more accepting of how their life has developed.

Marriage: It has been said that marriage can be the greatest source of happiness or pain in one’s life, depending on the relationship. Those who are in marriages can experience deeper happiness and pain than those who are unattached. All marriages are not alike and the same marriage between two people may change through the years. Below we will look at how satisfaction with marriage is affected by the life cycle and two ways to characterizing marriages.

Marital satisfaction & the life cycle: Marital satisfaction has peaks and valleys during the course of the life cycle. Rates of happiness are highest in the years prior to the birth of the first child. It hits a low point with the coming of children. Relationships become more traditional and there are more financial hardships and stress in living. Then it begins to improve when children leave home. Children bring new expectations to the marital relationship. Two people, who are comfortable with their roles as partners, may find the added parental duties and expectations more challenging to meet. Some couples elect not to have children in order to have more time and resources for the marriage. These child-free couples are happy keeping their time and attention on their partners, careers, and interests.

Types of Marriages

Intrinsic and Utilitarian Marriages: One way marriages vary is with regard to the reason the partners are married. Some marriages have intrinsic value: the partners are together because they enjoy, love and value one another. Marriage is not thought of as a means to another end-is an end in itself. These partners look for someone they are drawn to and with whom they feel a close and intense relationship. These partners find the relationship personally rewarding. Other marriages called utilitarian marriages are unions entered primarily for practical reasons. The partners see one another as a means to an end. The marriage brings financial security, children, social approval, housekeeping, political favor, a good car, a great house, and so on. These partners do not focus on intimacy. These marriages may be chosen more out of default. (“She was there when it was time to get married so here we are.”) Marriages entered for practical reasons are more common throughout history and throughout the world.

Intrinsic marriages are a relatively recent phenomenon arising out of the 20th century focus on romantic love as a basis for marriage and increased independence of the partners. Marriage today is viewed as less necessary for economic survival. In general, utilitarian marriages tend to be more stable than intrinsic ones. In an intrinsic marriage, if the love or passion cools, there is nothing else to keep the partners together. In utilitarian marriages, there may be numerous ties to one another (children, property, and status). However, intrinsic marriages may be more romantically satisfying. Are most marriages intrinsic or utilitarian?

In reality, marriages fall somewhere in between these two extremes.  Now let’s look at another typology of marriage. As you read these types, think of whether these are more utilitarian or more intrinsic.

Cuber and Harroff

This classic typology of marriages is based on interviews with 437 highly educated, upper-middle class people, and ages 35 to 55 (Cuber & Haroff, 1965). All were financially successful and emotionally adjusted.  From their interviews, the researchers found five major types of marriages. Some of these are more intrinsic and some more utilitarian.  (One of the merits of this model is that it calls attention to the variation we find in marriages.)

 1) Conflict-habituated marriages: In these marriages, there is considerable tension and unresolved conflict. Spouses habitually quarrel, nag, and bring up the past. As a rule, both spouses acknowledge their incompatibility and recognize the atmosphere of tension as normal. The subject of the argument hardly seems important, and partners do not resolve or expect to resolve their differences. ‘Of course we don’t settle any of the issues. It’s sort of a matter of principle not to. Because somebody would have to give in and lose face for the next encounter’, explained a member of a 25 year long conflict-habituated marriage. The conflict between them is “controlled” meaning it doesn’t escalate. And it may be main way the partners interact with one another.

2) Devitalized relationships: These marriages are characterized as being empty, apathetic relationships which once had something more. Usually couples have been married several years, and over the course of time, the relationship has lost it’s zest, intimacy, and meaning. Once deeply in love, they recall spending a great deal of time enjoying sex, and having a close emotional relationship in the past. But now they spend little time together, enjoy sex together less, and no longer share many interests and activities. Most of their time is “duty time” together spent entertaining, planning and sharing activities with their children, and participating in community responsibilities and functions. Once their marriage was intrinsic, but now has become utilitarian.

Cuber and Haroff found these to be common among their respondents. Couples accepted this and tried to be “mature” about it. Some attributed it to being in middle-age; as a normal part of growing older. Others were resentful, bitter about it and others were ambivalent. Many felt it was appropriate for spouses who have been married for several years and these marriages were stable.

3) Passive-congenial: These utilitarian marriages emphasize qualities in the partners rather than emotional closeness. These upper-middle class couples tended to emphasize civic and professional responsibilities and the importance of property, children, and reputation. Among working class people the focus might be on the need for security or hopes for children. Unlike devitalized marriages, passive-congenial partners never expected the marriage to be emotionally intense. Instead, they stress the “sensibility” of their decision to marry. There is little conflict, but that does not mean there are no unspoken frustrations. There is little intimacy but the partner’s fail each other’s need for casual companionship. Passive-congenial marriages are less likely to end in divorce than unions in which partners have high expectations for emotional intensity. But if the marriage fails to fill practical needs, such as economic support or professional advancement, the partners may decide to divorce. Or, if one partner discovers they want more intimacy, they may leave.

4) Vital: These intrinsic marriages are created out of a desire for being together for the sake of enjoying one another. Vital partners retain their separate identities, but really enjoy sharing activities. They do have conflict, but it is likely to center on real issues rather than on “who said what first” or old grievances. They try to settle disagreements quickly so they can resume the relationship that means so much to them. There are few long-term areas of tension. Sex is important and pleasurable. Cuber and Haroff found these marriages to be in the minority.

5) Total marriage: These are also intrinsic. They are like vital marriages but the marriage encompasses even more areas of the partner’s lives. Spouses may share work life, friends and leisure activities, as well as home life. They may organize their lives to make it possible to be alone together for long periods. These relationships are emotionally intense. Total marriages were also rare. They may also be at risk for rapid disintegration if the marital quality changes. These partners tend to want such intensity and be dissatisfied with anything less. These marriages also foster a mutual dependency that makes it hard for the remaining partner to adjust in case of death or divorce.

Marital Communication

Advice on how to improve one’s marriage is centuries old. One of today’s experts on marital communication is John Gottman. Gottman (1999) differs from many marriage counselors in his belief that having a good marriage does not depend on compatibility. Rather, the way that partners communicate to one another is crucial. At the University of Washington in Seattle, Gottman has measures the physiological responses of thousands of couples as they discuss issues of disagreement. Fidgeting in one’s chair, leaning closer to or further away from the partner while speaking, increases in respiration and heart rate are all recorded and analyzed along with videotaped recordings of the partners’ exchanges. Gottman believes he can accurately predict whether or not a couple will stay together by analyzing their communication. In marriages destined to fail, partners engage in the “marriage killers”: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Each of these undermines the politeness and respect that healthy marriages require. And stonewalling, or shutting someone out, is the strongest sign that a relationship is destined to fail. Listen to Act One: What Really Happens in Marriage to hear Gottman talk about his work.


We have examined divorce from the standpoint of its impact on children. And, in our last lesson, we looked at the “process of disaffection.” One way to understand divorce is to look at the types of divorces people experience when a relationship ends. Bohannon (1971) describes six “stations of divorce”. The first is the emotional divorce. This involves a lot of mini-divorces in which partners make alienating remarks to one another. Partners become disengaged from one another and emotionally withdrawn. Some couples divorce emotionally, but never legally.

The economic divorce involves the division of property and debt, determining whether alimony will be paid, and determining if a spouse who provided support while their partner was in school or other lengthy training that increased their earning potential will be entitled to future earnings.  Sometimes custody battles are motivated by economic concerns.

The legal divorce involves court proceedings and negotiations that legally dissolve the partners’ marital ties to one another. This is when society views a couple as divorced and may be a process that is somewhat anticlimactic. The actual time spent in the courtroom may be brief and the final culmination of much of what has occurred in the other stations of divorce.

The coparental divorce is experienced by those couples who have children together. Determining custody and visitation are part of this station of divorce. This can be the most difficult station of divorce.

The community divorce is perhaps given the least attention when thinking of divorce. This involves severing ties with neighbors, coworkers, friends, and relatives following divorce. When family and friends choose sides in a break-up, relationships are lost. Divorced adults may find that they are no longer included in events and ties are no longer maintained. A person begins to get used to their single status. This may initially involve a sense of anxiety about the future.

The psychic divorce takes the longest to complete. This involves grieving, becoming more objective about one’s role in the break up, and feeling whole again as a single person. This transition may take 5 years or more. Many people never complete this because they remarry before getting to this point.


Rates of remarriage: Half of all marriages are remarriages for at least one partner. But remarriage rates have declined slightly in the past few years.  Cohabitation is the main way couples prepare for remarriage, but even when living together, many important issues are still not discussed.  Issues concerning money, ex-spouses, children, visitation, future plans, previous difficulties in marriage, etc. can all pose problems later in the relationship.  And few couples engage in premarital counseling or other structured efforts to cover this ground before entering marriage again.

Happiness in remarriage: Reviews are mixed as to how happy remarriages are. Some say that they have found the right partner and have learned from mistakes. But the divorce rates for remarriages are higher than for first marriages. This is especially true in stepfamilies for reasons which we have already discussed. People who have remarried tend to divorce more quickly than do first marriages. This may be due to the fact that they have fewer constraints on staying married (are more financially or psychologically independent).

Factors effecting remarriage: The chances of remarrying depend on a number of things.  First, it depends on the availability of partners.  As time goes by, there are more available women than men in the marriage pool.  Consequently, men are more likely than women to remarry.  This lack of available partners is experienced by all women, but especially by African-American women where the ratio of women to men is quite high.  Women are more likely to have children living with them, and this diminishes the chance of remarriage as well.  And marriage is more attractive for males than females (Seccombe & Warner, 2004).  Men tend to remarry sooner (3 years after divorce on average vs. 5 years on average for women).

Many women do not remarry because they do not want to remarry.  Traditionally, marriage has provided more benefits to men than to women.  Women typically have to make more adjustments in work (accommodating work life to meet family demands or the approval of the husband) and at home (taking more responsibility for household duties).  Further, men’s physical desirability is not as influenced by aging as is women’s.  The cultural emphasis on youth and physical beauty for women does not apply for men.

Education increases men’s likelihood of remarrying but may reduce the likelihood for women.  Part of this is due to the expectation (almost an unspoken rule) referred to as the “marriage gradient”.  This rule suggests among couples, the man is supposed to have more education than the woman.  Today, there are more women with higher levels of education than before and women with higher levels are less likely to find partners matching this expectation.  Being happily single requires being economically self-sufficient and being psychologically independent.  Women in this situation may find remarriage much less attractive.

How Do Children Influence Recoupling/Repartnering?

Children lower the probability of remarriage, especially for women. One of the reasons for this is because women with children have less time and fewer resources for dating.  Dating is difficult for a woman who has to find a babysitter, pay for a babysitter, and ‘come home on time’ if she is concerned about what her children think about her relationships.  There is more guilt experienced about going out and finding the time and location for sexual intimacy can be problematic.  Men may shy away from the responsibility of children or may find it difficult to get along with a girlfriend’s children.  And parents may find it difficult to date someone who wants to change the relationship they have with their children.  Sometimes, she may feel pulled in two directions as the children and the man in her life all seek attention and engage in power struggles to get it.  Some women decide that it is easier to be single than to experience such divisions.  (This can also be true for men whose dates try to establish their importance over the importance of the children.)  Children usually remain central to a single parent’s life.

Courtship in Remarriage

Courtships are shorter in remarriage than in first marriages.  When couples are “dating”, there is less going out and more time spent in activities at home or with the children.  So the couple gets less time together to focus on their relationship.  Anxiety or memories of past relationships can get in the way.  As one Talmudic scholar suggests “when a divorced man marries a divorced woman, four go to bed.” (Secombe & Warner, 2004).

Remarried couples tend to have more realistic expectations for marriage, but also tend to be less willing to stay in unhappy situations.  And re-divorce is more likely, especially when children are involved.


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