Men and women share many hopes and expectations in the domain of marriage and romantic relationships—but in some areas, like when they’re thinking about divorce, they tend to see things very differently.
In 2002, my colleagues published a study based on a national survey, in which we presented analyses on all sorts of dynamics in marriage, including those related to commitment, communication, and conflict. One of the analyses we conducted looked at the associations between thinking about divorce and ratings of global positivity and ratings of negativity. Global positivity included ratings of relationship satisfaction, sensual connection, talking as friends, and having fun with one’s mate. Negativity was measured by what we call “communication danger signs,” including the tendency for arguments to escalate, the use of put-downs, the belief that one’s partner sees one’s own motives too negatively, and the degree to which one or both partners pull away during conflicts. You could think of the positivity measure as reflecting the overall quality of connection and the negativity measure as reflecting the level of conflict in the relationship.
We found a pretty strong difference between men and women on what was most strongly linked to thoughts of divorce. Take a moment and guess which way this went. I bet you can do it.
We found that, for women, ratings on positive connection explained twice as much variance in thinking about divorce as did negativity. For men, it was just the opposite, with negativity explaining almost four times as much variance in thinking about divorce than positivity. To put that more simply: Thinking about leaving one’s marriage was associated more with an absence of positive connection for women and the presence of negative interaction for men.
Men start to wonder if it’s going to work out when there are a lot of hassles and negatives with their mates. Women start to wonder if it’s going to work out when there is an absence of positives with their mates. Are they coming from different planets? In a way they seem to be, because this type of finding (and there are others like it) suggests that men and women have—at least historically—had a different standard to measure whether their marriages are working out.
The sample from our study is from the mid-1990s. It’s quite possible that we’d get a different result today. (And we may examine this type of association again soon using a much more recent sample of unmarried individuals in serious, romantic relationships.) If you’d like to think men and women are on the same planet, the overall conclusion you could make is straightforward: Marriages thrive when there is both a solid positive connection and a lower level of negative interaction. It’s worth thinking about how you can move both factors in the right direction in your own relationship, regardless of whether the two of you fit any stereotype. After all, you live under the same roof regardless of what planet you are on.