Irish Times

Thursday, June 14, 2001

90% of marriages relatively healthy

By Padraig O'Morain, health and Children Correspondent
Irish Times

Marital strife is "vastly" more stressful than unemployment or poverty, according to a research report published yesterday by Marriage and Relationship Counselling Services.

While its most startling finding was that the women among the largely middle-class clientele of the MRCS were more likely than the men to perpetrate violence, it also suggests that about 90 per cent of marriages are relatively healthy.

This does not mean they are entirely harmonious. As might be expected, for instance, criticism, insults and not listening occurred in about 90 per cent of relationships in which people came to MRCS for counselling.

But these behaviours also exist in successful marriages - the crucial difference, according to the report, is that in successful marriages they are likely to be offset by positive experiences and feelings.

Indeed, in general being married has a more positive effect on the well-being of men and women than either income or employment. Similarly, "marital distress is vastly more stressful than other life events such as unemployment or poverty".

The purpose of the Irish research is to establish whether relationship counselling is effective. Findings on the effectiveness of the counselling will be revealed in a final report - yesterday's is an interim one.

"Our findings indicate that relationships are most damaged by criticism, insults and not listening to one's partner and an inability, particularly on the part of men, to deal constructively with conflict," the authors say.

Women's demands for change lead either to withdrawal or confrontation by men which, in turn, worsens the situation. Withdrawal by the husband in the face of the wife's criticisms is particularly likely to lead to the eventual breakdown of the relationship, the report suggests.

Violence "is less injurious to the relationship than any of the factors just mentioned", the authors say. The study found little evidence of excessive drinking by men or women but the authors acknowledge that other studies have found a link between marital unhappiness and excessive drinking.

Unfaithfulness was a feature of one-third of all the relationships studied in the research. Half of the instances of unfaithfulness were caused by men only, a quarter by women and a fifth involved both partners being unfaithful.

The researchers also found complaints about the unfair sharing of housework bear no relationship to how much housework is actually shared. They suggest complaints about housework may be a way of expressing unhappiness with the marriage itself.

When a relationship is in trouble women find this more distressing than men, the researchers say. The men "are less distressed and more committed to their relationship". Women are more likely to want to either "mend or end" the marriage and "we found that women are considerably more likely than men (13 per cent compared to 8 per cent) to wish to end the relationship".

The research was conducted by Dr Kieran McKeown, who has worked for most of the main Government departments, many statutory and voluntary bodies and for the EU Commission; Mr Trutz Haase, who has worked for the Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre, the Combat Poverty Agency and St Patrick's College, Drumcondra; and by Mr Jonathan Pratschke who has carried out research in the areas of health policy and social disadvantage.

The first MRCS Canon Maurice Handy award has gone to Ms Claire D'Arcy in recognition of her 25 years' work with Accord, formerly the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council. Canon Handy was one of the founders of the MRCS in the early 1960s.

© 2001