Basic Types of
Tolstoy wasn't even half right. Happy couples are not all
alike. Nor is every unhappy family unhappy in its own way.
If David H. Olson, Ph.D., is correct, there are seven basic
types of marriage. In three of them, where happiness abounds, couples held
together by the smooth working of most or all factors intrinsic to
relationships - personality compatibility, communication, conflict
resolution, and sexuality. In the other four, the marriage hinges more on
external elements, leisure activities, religious attitudes, financial
management, children, family and friends, and distress predominates.
Unfortunately, Olson finds, most people today live in
distressed marriages. But his studies of over 15,000 couples point the way
to happier futures for many.
Head of family social science at the University of
Minnesota, Olson evaluated marital partners - both as individuals and the
consensus between them - along the nine dimensions that previous studies
had shown to be areas of trouble and conflict. He also looked at their
global assessment of satisfaction, and their cohesion and adaptability.
When he compiled all the data, families naturally clustered into seven
- Devitalized marriage: 40 percent of couples. There is pervasive
unhappiness with all relationship dimensions and considerable instability.
Both partners have considered divorce. They are critical of each other's
personality. Their marriage is strictly utilitarian. They tend to be
younger, married a shorter time, and have a lower income than other
couples. Many are minorities. More of them come from divorced homes, and
more of them were previously divorced themselves. They stay together for
lack of alternatives.
- Financially focused: 11 percent of couples. These couples have conflict
and are unhappy in their communication and the way conflicts are resolved.
They are dissatisfied with the personal characteristics of their partner,
and there may be bitter personal attacks. Their careers come before the
relationship, and money or financial rewards hold them together. Their
single relationship strength is financial management. A high number of
husbands and wives in such utilitarian relationships have considered
- Conflicted: 14 percent. They are dissatisfied in many facets of the
relationship - personality issues, communication, conflict resolution, and
sexuality - and they may avoid or fail to settle issues between them.
Instead, they focus on and gain satisfaction from outside experiences such
as leisure, the children, and religious life. But a high percentage of
both partners have considered divorce.
Traditional: 10 percent. They are moderately satisfied with many
relationship elements, while their sexual relationship and the way they
communicate are sources of distress. They are not as critical of each
other's personality as Types 1, 2 and 3. Their strength lies in a
satisfying religious life and good interaction with extended family and
friends. The marriages are relatively stable. These couples tend to be
older, married longer, white, and Christian.
- Balanced: 8 percent. They are moderately satisfied with most
relationship areas, with real strengths in communication and
problem-solving. The biggest problem is financial management. They have
higher than average agreement on leisure, child-rearing, and sexuality.
They place a high value on the nuclear family. Still, over a quarter have
- Harmonious: 8 percent. They are highly satisfied with each other, the
expression of affection, and their sexual life. But they are
self-centered, viewing children as a burden and parenting as a source of
distress. It may be that, when a problem develops in this family, it shows
up in the child.
- Vitalized: 9 percent. They are highly satisfied with almost every
dimension of their relationship and get along well. They are personally
integrated, have strong internal resources, and agree in most external
areas. They develop difficulties but resolve them well. They are
economically better off than most others, and tend to be older, married
longer, white, Christians. They tend to be in their first marriage and
come from intact families.
There were a few surprises in the study. Even the
best-adjusted couples are not immune to marital shakiness; nearly one in
four wives in Type 7 marriages had at some point considered divorce. In
fact, wives were generally less satisfied than husbands in all seven
While recognizing the complexity of marriage relationships,
the typology points to the specific strengths families can build upon in
times of crisis. And it indicates weaknesses that need to be addressed if
and when couples seek help.
Psychology Today Jan/Feb 93