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Match Me if You Can: Lack of Matching Between Partners Predicts Divorce

Let’s play a quick game. What do all of these celebrity couples have in common?: Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries; Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony; Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher; Heidi Klum and Seal; Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. If you said divorced, you’d be correct (we would have also accepted “lack of talent” as a correct answer). These couples are just a few among the many who had a marriage that didn’t survive, and some, like Kim and Kris, had barely left the wedding chapel by the time they were divorced! (Clearly, they didn’t think this one through before having a multi-million dollar wedding!). 

The sad truth is that divorce rates are high, and not just for celebrities. Recent estimates suggest that there is about a 50% chance that a given marriage will eventually end in divorce.1 Looking at the glass as half full, that means that 50% of marriages do succeed. Although there are several factors that predict divorce, recent research has identified one important reason why some marriages succeed whereas others fail: the degree to which our partner matches what we are looking for in an ideal partner2 (“ideal” meaning an attainable expectation for a partner, not necessarily the perfect partner).   

Before explaining the results of this research, it is important to discuss two forms of “matching”: level match and pattern match. Level match refers to the degree to which your partner matches the precise “amounts” you would like of him or her on certain characteristics. To illustrate this idea, try this quick exercise. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, rate the degree to which your ideal partner should have a good sense of humor.  If you want your ideal partner to score an 8 in sense of humor, and you perceive your partner as actually being an 8, then you have a level match. Pattern match, on the other hand, refers to how a partner matches on the relative importance of certain characteristics in relation to other characteristics, regardless of the precise amounts of those qualities. For example, suppose you prefer your ideal partner to have an 8 on sense of humor and a 9 on honesty. Although your actual partner may only be a 6 on sense of humor and a 7 on honesty, he or she still has the pattern of being more honest than funny, which matches what you prefer. In this case, you have a pattern match.

Researchers recruited 169 newlywed couples and had them complete a questionnaire about their ideal partner preferences and perceptions of their actual partner’s attributes. Couples were then contacted about their marital status every 6 months for 3.5 years. Interestingly, pattern match (but not level match) significantly predicted divorce over time. Specifically, couples who demonstrated pattern matches were nearly three times less likely to have divorced over the course of the study than did couples lacking pattern matching!  Level match, on the other hand, was not a significant predictor of divorce. Perhaps this isn’t exactly shocking – if you are picky enough on level matches, you likely won’t be getting married in the first place (although Kim and Kris somehow managed to push past this hurdle for a few days).

Now think back to your ratings from earlier. If honesty is more important to you than sense of humor, but you perceive your partner to have more sense of humor than honesty, you may as well start packing your bags now. Okay, maybe we’re jumping the gun a bit here, but it does mean that you may be more likely to divorce later in your marriage if that pattern continues. So, before you reach the point in your relationship where marriage is a real option, it may be helpful to determine whether your partner has the characteristics you feel are the most important to you. Even if your partner doesn’t match the exact levels that you desire, as long as the pattern of their attributes fits your preferences, your odds of experiencing marital bliss are increased.

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1Tejada-Vera, B., & Sutton, P. D. (2010). Births, marriages, divorces, and deaths: Provisional data for 2009. National Vital Statistics Reports, 58 (25). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

2Eastwick, P. W., & Neff, L. A. (in press). Do ideal partner preferences predict divorce? A tale of two metrics. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Dr. Brent Mattingly - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Mattingly's research, broadly conceptualized, focuses on the intersection of romantic relationships and the self. His specific lines of research all examine how individual-level constructs (e.g., motivation, attachment, self-regulation) are associated with various relational processes.

Amanda Mosley
Amanda is a Junior Psychology major/Marketing minor at Ashland University. She has conducted research as a volunteer in the Psychology lab since her freshman year of college, and also has experience presenting research at conferences with the Eastern Psychological Association and the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities Symposium hosted by Ashland University.

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