Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
March 22, 1996

Researcher studies what makes marriage work

by Michelle Johnson
It is one of the most familiar statistics in the country: one out of two marriages will end in divorce. Call him an optimist, but Harvey Joanning believes that marriage works. And that marriage is work.

Joanning, head of ISU's marriage and family therapy program and a licensed psychologist, has been researching marriage for more than 20 years and counseling married couples since 1970.

One of his research projects involves couples of more than 30 years who view themselves and are viewed by others as happily married.

Joanning and co-researcher, Tom Henrich, a marriage and family therapist in Sioux City, found several similarities among these couples. All live in small, close-knit communities, have strong religious ties, a commitment to children and have become closer due to some kind of personal trauma, such as severe illness or near death of one of the partners, economic downturn, or the loss of a child.

"It's amazing how close couples become when experiencing a tragedy of some kind," Joanning said. "When couples really stick together to get through something, it strengthens their marriage for the rest of their lives -- in terms of their commitment to one another, their ability to communicate and their willingness to work harder towards a successful relationship."

While some of the variables in these successful relationships are beyond control, there are elements present that can be controlled and practiced, he said.

"It all begins with three key factors," Joanning said. "The ability to communicate effectively over time, respect for one another and an overall commitment to one another."

Sounds simple enough. But Joanning cautions that these qualities are much more complicated than they sound.

"It is easy for a couple to say that they communicate well," Joanning said. "They think that communication means being able to speak effectively. Communication involves not only expressing oneself well, but the ability to listen and problem solve, too."

Most couples go through a period in their relationships, typically lasting about seven years, during which they learn to adjust to each other. Instead of trying to change each other to meet their own individual expectations, couples learn to share their perspectives. It's beyond a compromise. It's a synthesis -- a whole new way of interacting with each other, he said.

"Respect comes down to gender sensitivity -- being sensitive to each other's point of view," Joanning said. "Many researchers have pointed out that often-times couples don't understand one another because they don't understand how the other sex thinks."

As a foundation, happily married couples Joanning interviewed have what he describes as the "I'm for you, you're for me, let's go down life's road together" kind of commitment in which each partner is as concerned or more concerned about the other's well-being.

Joanning knows first-hand that kind of commitment. He and wife, Pat Keoughan, spend almost every waking minute together -- from early morning jogs, to counseling married couples in their home in the evenings. The two admit that it takes real willpower to make a relationship work. Joanning and Keoughan, who teach ballroom dancing as a hobby, have found that even fun activities can bring out the weaknesses in a relationship.

"People who ballroom dance together either end up having a great relationship or they just want to kill each other," Joanning said. "Ballroom dancing is really a great metaphor for marriage. In both, you have to coordinate your actions. To coordinate your actions, you have to talk to each other without getting mad. If you get mad, the dance is over."

To coordinate actions in a marriage, couples must know what to expect of each other. They usually enter a relationship with very different attitudes and values, but don't realize it for several years, he said.

"One hundred years ago, marriages were arranged to ensure economic stability, physical survival and reproduction," Joanning said. "It wasn't until the late 19th century that there was a movement toward marrying for love. As that shift took place, couples had to learn how to be married. They are still learning."

For the couple planning marriage, Joanning suggests therapy, not because there is something wrong, but because they want everything to go right. One of the reasons there aren't more long-term, successful relationships is that couples aren't sufficiently educated about marriage, he said.

"We spend more time training people how to drive a car than we do training them how to be married," Joanning said. "By bringing a couple's different expectations to the surface before the marriage takes place, we are able to inoculate them against the inevitable."

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