Publication # 2004-16
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What Is “Healthy Marriage”? Defining the Concept
By Kristin Anderson Moore, Ph.D., Susan M. Jekielek, Ph.D., Jacinta Bronte-Tinkew, Ph.D., Lina Guzman, Ph.D., Suzanne Ryan, Ph.D., and Zakia Redd, M.P.P. September 2004
verview Americans love books and movies that end with a couple exchanging vows and going on to live “happily ever after.” We cry at weddings, and we admire couples of whom it can be said, “They have a great marriage.” And young people today continue to place great importance on a good marriage and family life.1 At the same time, a considerable number of contemporary Americans have deep reservations about their prospects for marriage, the quality of a marriage they might enter, and the odds that their marriage will last.2 Some even raise concerns that marriage can be a trap and can expose women to domestic violence.3 Despite these divergent views and concerns, there is a lot of common ground. Most people, including unmarried parents, value marriage and want to be married.4 Moreover, research indicates that children thrive best when raised by both biological married parents,5 as long as the marriage is not high-conflict.6 Thus, for the sake of adults, children, and society, a growing consensus is emerging that it is not just marriage per se that matters, but healthy marriage.7 But what is a healthy marriage? This Research Brief addresses that question by examining the concept of healthy marriage and the elements that, taken together, help to define it, such as commitment, marital satisfaction, and communication, as well as two elements that pose obvious threats to healthy marriage: violence and infidelity. This brief also considers factors that are antecedents and consequences of healthy marriage and distinguishes these from the definition of a healthy marriage. The result is a conceptual model that can be useful in informing the public discussion on healthy marriage and what it entails.
Child Trends’ work to conceptualize and define healthy marriage for research and intervention evaluation studies among low-income couples8 is in keeping with our ongoing focus on children and the ways that family structure, fertility, and fatherhood can affect children’s well-being. Based on available research studies, data, and theoretical writings, and on short papers commissioned from scholars working in the field,9 we have premised our work on several assumptions, as shown below: ■ Healthy marriage is not an either/or thing. Couples don’t either have a healthy marriage or not have it. Rather, couples have healthy marriages to varying degrees, in varying respects, and the quality of the same marriage may differ over time.
■ The elements of a healthy marriage need to be assessed differently for different populations. The issues faced by a couple raising children are different from those faced by childless newlyweds; and the concerns of couples with a partner away in the military or incarcerated are quite different from those of a couple who live together. ■ The ingredients of a healthy marriage can be learned. If the partners are interested and motivated, a healthy marriage is capable of being built, changed, or modified. ■ A healthy marriage includes a commitment to any children that the couple may have. Thus, our perspective is not limited to the couple, but extends to include children, if the couple has children.
© 2004 Child Trends
■ Healthy marriage needs to be distinguished from the antecedents and consequences of healthy marriage. In this case, antecedents refer to prior conditions that can affect or influence marriage (such as whether a partner brings children into the union), while consequences refer to the conditions that may result from marriage (such as greater financial security). Because distinctions between the...
Links: 28 Smock, P. J., & Manning, W. D. (2003). 29
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