Many victims of abuse go on to enjoy happy marriages, finds study of links between partner characteristics and relationship satisfaction.

Having a warm, loving partner typically won’t save you from the reduced relationship satisfaction that springs from having experienced child abuse, according to our three-year study of hundreds of newlywed couples.

We found that being married to a loving partner didn’t alter a well-documented association between childhood experiences of abuse and lower relationship satisfaction in adult life.

“The study challenges the expectation that a good marriage will diminish or offset the impact of abuse during childhood.”

The study challenges the expectation that a good marriage will always diminish or offset the impact of abuse during childhood. However loving a couple’s relationship is, we found that childhood abuse remains linked to lower relationship satisfaction. At the same time, our study shows that, among people who eventually marry, those who experience a difficult and abusive childhood can and do enjoy fulfilling relationships.

Effects of childhood abuse on relationships aren’t large

Childhood abuse doesn’t mean that a person is destined to have an unhappy marriage. It wouldn’t be accurate to conclude that such individuals will eventually become dissatisfied with their marriages or seek divorce. The effects of abuse on marriage satisfaction are statistically significant, but they aren’t large. In practical terms, this means that some abused individuals actually experience levels of satisfaction that are higher than those of some people who were never abused. That’s because, for both groups, there is a continuum of marriage satisfaction, with some people experiencing more happiness than others in their couple relationships.

Ours is among the first studies to examine how partner characteristics affect the relationship satisfaction of people who report having experienced childhood abuse. More than 400 heterosexual newlywed couples, married in Los Angeles, participated in our study. On four occasions, every 9 months, beginning soon after their marriage, we interviewed them at home about their relationships. We also videotaped them during private conversations, which we later coded for positive communication (such as levels of warmth and empathy) and negative communication (such as angry coercion and contempt).

Aggressive partners didn’t worsen impact of earlier abuse

When we analyzed the association between one partner’s earlier childhood abuse and relationship satisfaction, it grew neither stronger nor weaker when the other partner was supportive and warm. And it may surprise you that the association typically also remained constant when the partner was more hostile.

“Our findings, though some people may find them disheartening, show that couples need to have realistic expectations when they form relationships.”

Our findings, though some people may find them disheartening, show that couples need to have realistic expectations when they form relationships. For example, a non-abused partner whose husband was abused may risk becoming disillusioned. She might say, “Gosh, we’ve been together for a while now, but he still doesn’t trust me. What do I have to do? What’s going wrong? Will he ever feel less sensitive or moody?” Our findings help explain such problems, and suggest a stance that favors accepting the partner rather than trying to change him or her. Other studies, notably by Jim McNulty and Ben Karney, show that having high expectations of relationships can be damaging if couples lack the ability to achieve them.

Findings support acceptance-based therapies

Some people tend to think of marriage as a transformative experience, a fertile environment for self-improvement, more than as a place of unconditional acceptance. Some hope that their partner can change them – or that they can change their partner, regardless of his or her upbringing. Our findings add to growing evidence in favor of acceptance and commitment-based therapies for couples. Therapies such as Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy (IBCT), for example, focus on acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean resigning yourself to a diminished life in the face of problems. Rather, it means accepting that differences between spouses exist naturally and that such differences need not be changed. Instead, reactions to these differences can be changed. In this way, couples can let go of the struggle, stop using their energy fruitlessly, and try to change what traits they can.

An interesting but surprising finding concerned couples in which both partners had experienced childhood abuse. In these cases, we found that having a partner who also experienced abuse did indeed temper the impact. Our data don’t give us enough information to explain this result, but we can speculate. Could it be that partners found it easier to disclose rather than hide their pasts when both had been abused? Did their similar experiences give them empathetic skills to tackle the other’s past traumas? Future research should look into such questions.

Overall, our study may be a reality check for couples in which one member was abused as a child, as well as for counselors and therapists. They should be wary of thinking that a loving partner can and should resolve the impact of abuse on relationship satisfaction. Perhaps this can happen in some relationships, but in our study such beneficial effects were not the norm. It’s worth remembering that certain psychological tools, including emerging forms of acceptance-based therapies for individuals and couples, though they may not be able to neutralize the past, may nonetheless help people with difficult childhoods thrive in the future.

Practice Implications

Family support services should consider the use of acceptance and commitment-based therapies for couples, such as Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy (IBCT).

References

 Nguyen TP, Karney BR & Bradbury TN (2017), Childhood abuse and later marital outcomes: Do partner characteristics moderate the association?, Journal of Family Psychology 31.1