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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Mechanisms of Stability and Change in Newlywed Marriage

  • Author(s): Lavner, Justin
  • Advisor(s): Bradbury, Thomas
  • et al.

Couples begin their marriages optimistic and excited for the future they are starting together, but within the first few years many marriages go on to struggle. This dissertation project serves to enhance our understanding of how and why marriages change during the newlywed years in a series of four longitudinal studies. The first two studies focus on examining changes in relationship satisfaction in tandem with changes in the independent variables that predict satisfaction. The first study analyzes changes in marital problems over the first four years of marriage and compares these changes with observed changes in marital satisfaction. Results indicate that, on average, marital problems remain stable over the newlywed years, even though satisfaction declines. The second study examines changes in risk across a variety of domains (intrapersonal, interpersonal, and external) to determine whether individuals with different marital trajectories differ more in their initial risk or how their risk changes over time. Results are consistent with an initial differences model, such that robust initial differences do more to explain variance in 4-year marital satisfaction trajectories than do differential changes over time. The final two studies examine the mechanisms underlying changes in satisfaction. The third study examines whether the extent to which couples engage in top-down and bottom-up processing changes over time. Results indicate that couples begin their marriages engaging in more top-down processing (e.g., global perceptions of satisfaction predict changes in specific problems) than bottom-up processing (e.g., specific perceptions of problems predict changes in global satisfaction), but that these effects grow weaker over time. The fourth study examines the reciprocal associations between relationship quality and couples' observed communication (e.g., positivity, negativity, effectiveness). Cross-lagged panel analyses indicate that communication behaviors rarely predict satisfaction over time, either at a within-spouse level or a cross-spouse level, but satisfaction is a more robust predictor of communication. Together, these studies offer a nuanced look at relationship development over the newlywed years, providing us with a better understanding of how and why marriages change to inform theory and practice.

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