In a longitudinal study of unprecedented length, Kelly and Conley (1987) studied a sample of 300 couples from their engagements in the 1930s all the way through their status later in life in the 1980s. At the final testing, the median age of the subject was 68 years. Within the entire sample of 300 couples, 22 couples broke their engagements and did not get married. Of the 278 couples who did get married, 50 ended up getting divorced sometime between 1935 and 1980.
During the first testing session in the 1930s, acquaintances provided ratings o each participant's personality on a wide variety of dimensions. Three aspects of personality proved to be strong predictors of marital dissatisfaction and divorce—the neu-roticism of the husband, the lack of impulse control of the husband, and the neuroticism of the wife. High levels of neuroticism proved to be the strongest predictors. Neuroticism was linked with marital dissatisfaction of both the men and the women in the 1930s, again in 1955, and yet again in 1980.
Furthermore, the neuroticism of both the husband and the wife, as well as the lack of impulse control of the husband, were strong predictors of divorce. The three major aspects of personality accounted for more than half of the predicable variance in whether or not the couples split up. This is a particularly strong ef fect in personality research. The couples who had a stable and satisfying marriage had neuroticism scores that were roughly half a standard deviation lower than the couples who subsequently got divorced. Furthermore, in the emotionally stable couples, the husbands tended to score roughly half a standard deviation higher on impulse control, compared with the husbands in unstable marriages.
The reasons for divorce themselves appear to be linked to the personality characteristics measured earlier in life. The husbands with low impulse control when firs assessed, for example, tended later in life to have extramarital af fairs—breaches of the marital vows that loomed lar ge among the major reasons cited for the divorce. The men with higher impulse control appear to have been able to refrain from having sexual flings, which are so detrimental to marriages (Buss 2003).
These results, spanning a 45-year period consisting of most of the adult lives of the participants, point to an important conclusion about personality coherence. Personality may not be destiny , but it leads to some predictable life outcomes, such as infidelit , marital unhappiness, and divorce.
Interestingly, neuroticism also plays a role in another important life outcome— resilience after losing a spouse. A fascinating longitudinal study showed that one of the best predictors of coping well with the death of a spouse was the personality disposition of emotional stability (Bonanno, Wortman, Lehman, Tweed, Haring, Sonnega, Carr, & Nesse, 2002). A total of 205 individuals were assessed several years prior to the death of their spouse, and then 6 and 18 months after their spouse's demise. Those high on emotional stability grieved less, showed less depression, and displayed the quickest psychological recovery . Individuals low on emotional stability (high on neuroticism) were still psychologically anguished half a year and even a year and a half later . Personality, in short, af fects many aspects of romantic life: who is likely to get involved in a successful romantic relationship (Shiner, Masten, & Tellegen, 2002); which marriages remain stable and highly satisfying (Kelly & Conley , 1987); which people are more likely to get divorced (Kelly & Conley , 1987); and how people cope following the loss of a spouse (Bonanno et al., 2002).
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