What keeps unhappy couples together?: a qualitative and theoretical exploration

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Wall, Bingham
Major Professor
Charles Lee Cole
Committee Member
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Human Development and Family Studies

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies focuses on the interactions among individuals, families, and their resources and environments throughout their lifespans. It consists of three majors: Child, Adult, and Family Services (preparing students to work for agencies serving children, youth, adults, and families); Family Finance, Housing, and Policy (preparing students for work as financial counselors, insurance agents, loan-officers, lobbyists, policy experts, etc); and Early Childhood Education (preparing students to teach and work with young children and their families).


The Department of Human Development and Family Studies was formed in 1991 from the merger of the Department of Family Environment and the Department of Child Development.

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  • College of Human Sciences (parent college)
  • Department of Child Development (predecessor)
  • Department of Family Environment (predecessor)

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Research on marriage has centered on either what happy couples are doing right or what unhappy couples are doing wrong. As a result, researchers have ignored low-quality, high-stability (LQHS) couples, those couples that choose to stay together even though they may be unhappy with each other. This dissertation investigates what keeps couples who are unhappy in their relationships together. A theory was developed based on the marital literature. The transcripts of semi-structured interviews with 9 couples married 5 years or longer, who scored the lowest on the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS) out of a sample of 99 Midwestern, American couples, were investigated to see what they said were the keys in keeping them together;The study reveals five domains. These couples demonstrated (1) an ability to survive early challenges to the marriage that bound them together as a couple; (2) a philosophy of marriage that emphasized the bigger picture, such as elevating the relationship over individuality and for some, elevating their faith over the relationship is a hierarchy; (3) a sense of reciprocity in most of the areas of the relationship such as an emphasis on the good things in the relationship and meeting each other's needs; (4) an ability to adjust to each other and their circumstances through growth and changing how they interacted as couples; and (5) a generally positive attitude toward the limitations of each other by dealing effectively with shattered expectations;The investigation uncovers three types of low-quality couples: those who stay married only because of factors outside the relationship such as children, called "Enduring Couples," those who seek to make an effort to moderate their behavior for the over-all improvement in the relationship, called "Striving Couples," and those who divorce;A synthesized theory about LQHS couples that takes the research literature and the results of this qualitative study into account is presented. The paper concludes with a discussion about the clinical implications of the findings in therapy with low-stability couples, the limits of qualitative research, and directions for future study.

Fri Jan 01 00:00:00 UTC 1999