What Is Marriage Psychology? +5 Relationship Theories

marriage psychology and therapyThere’s a lot of good news when it comes to getting and staying married.

In the United States and parts of England, for instance, divorce rates are dropping (Wood, 2018).

Younger people are delaying marriage, not avoiding it. They’re waiting until they finish school and have money to support a marriage.

One key benefit is that marriage positively affects your health and longevity (Eaker et al., 2007). If you’re looking for interesting insights from the field of marriage psychology, we’ve got you covered. Keep reading.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients build healthy, life-enriching relationships.

What Is Marriage Psychology?

The definition of marriage is usually from a legal perspective. Marriage occurs in every status and at various educational levels.

Why do humans pursue this arrangement? Why is it important? Why not live like our relatives the bonobo or chimpanzee? What is it about marriage that garners so much attention?

Researchers from diverse disciplines are exploring this. From an evolutionary perspective, marriage is viewed as strengthening and perpetuating the species. From a sociological vantage, marriage creates bonds between and among groups. These bonds facilitate the success of the group.

Marriage psychology focuses on the couple. Researchers question every conceivable situation around marriage. For example:

  • What brings two people together?
  • What keeps them together?
  • What breaks them apart?
  • How does their union affect their wellbeing, health, and happiness?
  • Are we supposed to be monogamous?
  • How does having children affect the marriage bond?
  • How can government actions influence the health of marriage?
  • How does stress affect the relationship?
  • How does a lack of intimacy affect the relationship?
  • How does the person’s upbringing affect their romantic relationships?

What is the purpose of marriage psychology?

Relationships can be tricky. Within a married relationship, this is especially true. Aside from ourselves, no single person in our adult lives has as much influence on our health and wellbeing as our spouse (Robles et al., 2014).

Our partner knows us better than anyone else because of their daily proximity to us. They know our idiosyncrasies. Over time, as we get closer, we can lift each other up and bask in that warmth. The support in our married relationship isn’t easily replaced by social support (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2008).

But when things aren’t clicking, the situation can take a dive. Squabbles or all-out battles can make it difficult to let go of the hurt.

Marriage psychology offers an examination of many of the behaviors and norms that we take for granted. It also provides a solid scientific basis for addressing problems in marriage with counseling or therapy.

Psychological Theories of Marriage

Among several psychological theories on marriage we’ve provides a short summary of a few prominent theories of marriage.

Social exchange theory

Social exchange theory posits that there are costs and benefits in potential interactions. People analyze each situation to determine the risks and benefits.

Within a marital relationship, these are “the cyclical patterns of transactions of valued resources, tangible or intangible, between partners and the rewards and costs associated with such transactions” (Nakonezny & Denton, 2008, p. 403).

8 Elements of intimacy

When asking questions about the psychology of marriage, researchers are often curious about how couples build and maintain intimacy. But what constitutes “intimacy”?

Waring (1988) defined intimacy along eight dimensions.

  • Conflict resolution: how easily couples can resolve differences of opinion.
  • Affection: the degree of emotional closeness the couple expresses.
  • Cohesion: the feeling that both couples are committed to the marriage.
  • Sexuality: how much sexual needs are communicated and fulfilled in the marriage.
  • Identity: the couple’s level of self-confidence and self-esteem.
  • Compatibility: the degree couples can work and play together.
  • Autonomy: how couples become independent from their families of origin and their offspring.
  • Expressiveness: the degree that thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and feelings are shared between the partners.

Duplex theory of love

Developed by Robert J. Sternberg (n.d.), this theory combines two theories together known as the duplex theory of love.

The first is a combination of three elements, intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment. The center of intimacy is the closeness, connectedness, and bond in the relationship. Think of this as the warm fuzzy feeling you have for a romantic partner. Romance, physical attraction, and sex make up the passion element of the theory.

The final part of the equation – decision/commitment – doesn’t have to happen along with the others. For example, a person could decide to love someone, but not pursue a long-term commitment. One could also commit to a relationship without admitting their love.

Triangular theory of love
Lnesa at English Wikipedia [Public domain]


Sternberg’s (n.d.) use of triangles represents different balances of the three kinds of love. When balanced, an equilateral triangle represents the love relationship.

The Gottman Method

John Gottman (2015) created the sound relationship house theory. He and his wife have studied a variety of relationships for 30 years.

The theory posits that every couple’s house consists of seven levels surrounded by trust and commitment (the insulation). The levels are:

  • Build love maps – Show genuine interest in the internal and external world of your partner. Know your partner’s dreams, values, and goals. Ask open-ended questions.
  • Share fondness and admiration – Communicate affection and respect in small ways, often.
  • Turn toward instead of away – Partners tend to make small bids for each other’s attention. For example, one might notice something and point it out. If the other partner acknowledges this and responds, then this is turning toward. If the partner continues doing what they’re doing then this is an example of turning away.
  • The positive perspective – This sentiment overrides moments when negative things are happening. This only occurs when 1-3 are working well in the relationship. Gottman (2015) calls this a buffer to irritability and emotional distance.
  • Manage conflict – Friendship is the basis for regulating conflict. Couples who have the first three ingredients tend to use humor and affection during conflict. Sixty-nine percent of conflicts are never solved. They’re perpetual problems that exist in every relationship.
  • Master couples learn how to cope with this over time through discussions. They don’t allow them to turn into a gridlock for their relationship.
  • Make life dreams come true – Master couples figure out the dreams that are the subtext for the conflict. They honor those dreams.
  • Create shared meaning – The couple feels like they’re building something together. Their roles within and without the relationship have meaning that supports them.

The Five Love Languages

Dr. Gary Chapman (1992) developed the five love languages after providing years of marriage counseling. Focusing on how to have healthy romantic relationships, Chapman points out that these languages apply to other types of relationships, too.

He determined that five behaviors are essential to a healthy, happy, long-term marriage:

  • Love and affirmation
  • Learning how to deal with your failures through forgiveness and apology
  • Learning how to handle anger
  • Learning how to listen
  • Accept and laugh about the minor irritations.

The five love languages are:

  1. Words of affirmation – Remember how your parents taught you to say, “please” and “thank you”? Sometimes we forget this simple tip in our relationships. The bottom line is we all love positive words from the people we respect and love.
  2. Gifts – This is what tells the other person that you’re thinking about them. They don’t need to be expensive. They do need to be thoughtful.
  3. Acts of service – Doing things for your spouse like household chores fall into this category. Doing them without being asked is even better if this is your partner’s love language.
  4. Quality time – Spending uninterrupted time together listening and talking creates stronger bonds. The TV/computer/phone is off. Your attention is on each other and nothing else.
  5. Physical touch – Holding hands, kissing, sex, hugging, and playfulness all are ways to express love.

According to Chapman (1992), everyone has a primary love language. If you’re interested in finding out more, The 5 Love Languages site offers a free quiz. It also includes an app so that you can take the quiz then connect with your partner.

Download 3 Free Positive Relationships Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will equip you or your clients to build healthy, life-enriching relationships.

What Are the Different Marriage Types?

There are several ways to look at marriage types. One way is to break marriage down into civil or religious partnerships. Many civil unions include a religious element, though this isn’t necessary. And various religions typically recognize civil marriages. States often recognize religious marriages, though licensing still might be necessary. This is the easiest distinction between marriage types.

Other definitions of marriage types exist. These include either a description of the marriage style, or the couple’s interaction within the marriage.

In sociological terms, there are four basic styles or approaches to marriage:

Polygyny – One male, more than one wife; this is further broken down into sororal and non-sororal. The former involves sisters, the latter doesn’t.

Polyandry – One wife, more than one husband; this also includes fraternal and non-fraternal marriage. The former involves several brothers with the same wife; the latter doesn’t. Depending on the cultural traditions, the children choose their father, or a ritual determines this.

The above are forms of polygamy.

Group marriage – Two or more people join together as common spouses; children belong to the group.

Monogamy – There are two types of monogamy: straight and serial. Straight monogamy doesn’t allow for remarriage due to death or divorce. Serial monogamy does.

Open marriage – This type may or may not include both spouses. It allows either party to engage in some sort of relationship with someone other than their spouse. This isn’t considered infidelity by the couple. They might also do this as a couple; for example, “swinging” is a type of open marriage.

One could argue that other categories or types exist, but these are the most common. Same-sex marriages fit into these marriage types much like heterosexual marriages do.

Psychologists also describe marriage based on how the couples interact within the marriage. This varies based on the predominant theory employed by the psychologist or therapist. For example, Gottman Institute (n.d.) describes five types. The first three are happy types. There are pros and cons to each.

  • Conflict avoiders – These couples have common areas of agreement where they’re interdependent. They don’t spend much time persuading or negotiating with each other. They’ve got established boundaries and are otherwise independent with separate interests.
  • Volatile couples – This relationship is emotional. They tend to engage in persuasion and debate but are respectful of each other. When this type of couple debates, they use humor.
  • Validating couples – This couple is a cross between the previous two. They engage in perspective-taking more than the others and are empathetic. They choose their battles, and after one, they tend to compromise. These couples aren’t overly emotionally expressive.
  • Hostile couples – This relationship type has high levels of defensiveness and criticism. There is little-to-no perspective-taking and a lot of contempt.
  • Hostile-detached couples – This couple is down to their kings on the board. It’s a constant state of stalemate. They don’t nit-pick at each other and are emotionally aloof. This couple eventually divorces.

6 Interesting Marriage Psychology Facts

How do people decide to get married? What factors are most important? The Pew Research Center (Geiger & Livingston, 2019) has asked Americans this and other questions since at least 1990. Here are some of their findings.

  1. 64% of Americans said that having shared interests helps people stay married.
  2. 61% believe a satisfying sexual relationship is very important to a successful marriage.
  3. Cohabitation is on the rise in the United States. It’s rising quickest among ages 50 and older.
  4. Fewer previously married women than men remarry. In 2014, 54% of women said they didn’t want to remarry.
  5. In 2015, 17% of newlyweds were married to someone of a different race or ethnicity. In 1967 it was 3%.
  6. While many marriages are between people of different religions, this isn’t true for politics. Most (77%) Republicans and Democrats marry someone who shares their political views.

17 Exercises for Positive, Fulfilling Relationships

Empower others with the skills to cultivate fulfilling, rewarding relationships and enhance their social wellbeing with these 17 Positive Relationships Exercises [PDF].

Created by experts. 100% Science-based.

A Look at the Psychology of Incompatible Couples

We’ve all met couples who seem incompatible. For some of these couples it seems that opposites attract, but for many more, opposition leads to constant conflict.

Compatibility isn’t simply what we have in common on the surface. It’s also the values, beliefs, and personality traits we share.

What makes us more or less compatible? How important is it anyway? Most couples fight about money, sex, and kids if they have them. Gottman says compatibility comes down to how the relationship supports your life’s mission. He believes we must connect emotionally and be responsive to each other’s bids for attention (Estroff Marano & Flora, 2004).

The dating website and matchmaking service eHarmony (n.d.) asserts that there are 32 compatibility areas. Some of them are:

  • How you reason and make decisions
  • Feelings about gender roles
  • Level of introversion/extraversion
  • Adaptability
  • How you deal with frustration
  • How you communicate

People married 7-10 years who met through eHarmony have a 3.86% divorce rate (Cacioppo et al., 2013). People who met online have “slightly higher marital satisfaction and lower rates of marital breakup than meeting a spouse through traditional (off-line) venues” (Cacioppo et al., 2013, p. 10139). Online services broaden your dating pool. This leads to an increased opportunity of finding a compatible partner.

Two key ingredients to the success of incompatible couples are generosity and adaptability. Become more generous with your time, attention and words. Understand that like you might be changing, your partner can, too.

Here’s how Warren explains compatibility.

If you’re curious about how compatible you and your partner are, and you didn’t meet through eHarmony, check out Instant Chemistry. They developed a DNA-based test to determine your compatibility with your partner.

The test covers three areas: biocompatibility, neuro-compatibility, and psychological compatibility. You spit into a tube, send it to their lab, and log into their site for a psychological assessment and your results.

A Take-Home Message

If you’ve never investigated the VIA‘s character strengths, you might find it helpful. You’ll discover your top five “go-to” strengths. There are 24 in all, and everyone uses each one to varying degrees. Humor is one of them. Since I’m learning to flex it more often, I’ll end with this:

Q: Why is marriage like a nice suit?

A: At first it’s a perfect fit, but after a while you need alterations.

Adaptability, flexibility, humor, and commitment do wonders for relationship building.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.


  • Cacioppo, J. T., Cacioppo, S. Gonzaga, G. C., Ogburn, E. L., & VanderWeele, T. J. (2013). Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(25), 10135–10140.
  • Chapman, G. (1992). The five love languages: How to express heartfelt commitment to your mate. Northfield Publishing.
  • Eaker, E. D., Sullivan, L. M., Kelly-Hayes, M., D’Agostino, R. B., Sr., & Benjamin, E. J. (2007). Marital status, marital strain, and risk of coronary heart disease or total mortality: The Framingham Offspring Study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69(6), 509–513.
  • eHarmony (n.d.). eHarmony’s 32 dimensions of compatibility explained. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://www.eharmony.co.uk/tour/tips/32-dimensions-compatibility-explained/.
  • Estroff Marano, H., & Flora, C. (2004, September 1). The truth about compatibility. Psychology Today. Retrieved April 10, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200409/the-truth-about-compatibility.
  • Geiger, A. W., & Livingston, G. (2019, February 13). 8 Facts about love and marriage in America. Pew Research Center. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/02/13/8-facts-about-love-and-marriage/.
  • Gottman, J. (n.d.). The 5 types of couples. The Gottman Institute.
  • Gottman, J. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. Harmony/Rodale.
  • Holt-Lunstad, J., Birmingham, W., & Jones, B. Q. (2008). Is there something unique about marriage? The relative impact of marital status, relationship quality, and network social support on ambulatory blood pressure and mental health. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 35(2), 239-244.
  • Nakonezny, P.A., & Denton W. H. (2008). Marital relationships: A social exchange theory perspective. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 36, p. 402-412.
  • Robles, T. F., Slatcher, R. B., Trombello, J. M., & McGinn, M. M. (2014). Marital quality and health: A meta-analysis review. Psychological Bulletin, 140(1), 140-187.
  • Sternberg, R. J. (n.d.). Duplex Theory of Love: Triangular Theory of Love and Theory of Love as a Story. Retrieved April 3, 2019, from http://www.robertjsternberg.com/love
  • Waring, E. M. (1988). Enhancing Marital Intimacy Through Facilitating Cognitive Self-Disclosure. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
  • Wood, J. (2018 October 5). The United States divorce rate is dropping, thanks to millennials. World Economic Forum. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/10/divorce-united-states-dropping-because-millennials/


What our readers think

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  2. cara

    this article is very help to me ,I am here today to share testimony on how love temple solution helped me brought my husband back and stop the divorce with in 48hours contact priest jaja I cant thank him enough for restoring my marriage and bring our family together again. Here is the contact to reach him .lovetemple 0001 { @ } {g mail. {

  3. ruth wimsatt, ph.d.

    When couples decide to have children, we say that both have to want to have them, or we can’t go forward. Your son who lives with you needs to be launched. He may remain out of an unconscious belief that he needs to protect you, stay by your side, & not abandon you. You may feel you’re abandoning him by encouraging him to leave the nest. His leaving will help everyone.

  4. AnnaMarie UriosteSmith

    Loved your article; lots of great information.

    My husband is a blamer and a complainer..not about me (at least not most of the time); he complains about my son (age 25, ADHD) who is a working and contributing member to our household. He is bright, loving, and family-oriented. Unfortunately, my husband can only see what my son does not do. Husband comes from a military background. Son is working on launching from home…but financially (as it has become the norm regarding today’s economic scene) it has been prohibitive. I will also mention that my son is mine from a previous relationship. I have been in the relationship for 5 1/2 years and have been totally committed to making things work. Husband seems to always have 1 foot in and 1 foot out.
    I am a clinical therapist, husband is retired military and is currently employed in the blue-collar industry. We are both older; I am 67, he is 60. I am semi-retired.


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