Ignorance in marriage is bliss, study suggests

Professor Rebecca Cobb finds that wives who participate in premarital counselling actually experience a decline in marital satisfaction

Premarital counselling may not be a useful tool for couples. - Anosha Ashfaq

When it comes to marriage, ignorance may indeed be bliss, according to Rebecca Cobb, associate professor in SFU’s Department of Psychology.

In her study of 201 couples from Metro Vancouver, Cobb found that couples who participated in relationship-education programs (or premarital counselling) experienced a significant decrease in their marital satisfaction. Couples who did not participate in such programs did not experience the same decline in satisfaction.

“The wives in particular have steeper declines in their satisfaction compared to the wives who did not participate [in relationship-education programs],” said Cobb.

The couples were engaged at the beginning of the study and transitioned to marriage over the course of the two years that Cobb followed them. They reported back to Cobb on their relationship satisfaction in a series surveys that took place eight times over two years.

Cobb found that a large proportion of the couples participated in programs through their religious organization or their church.

Many religious organisations actually require couples to participate in premarital counselling in order to be married through their institution.

Cobb’s objective was to compare similar couples solely on their participation in relationship-education programs, rather than let pre-existing differences influence the results.

“We measured different risk factors [for marital distress]. Based on those risk factors, we created a matched sample of people who participated in premarital education and those who did not,” she explained.

Couples were matched based on family history, relationship dynamics, personality characteristics, commitment level, and baseline satisfaction before they participated in the study.

The study found that wives who participated in these programs experienced a decrease in marital satisfaction. Cobb explained why this might be so: “The suspicion that we have is that these programs create an expectation for these wives about what relationships should look like [. . .] it sets a high bar for these wives to fail to meet.”

Husbands did not experience the same decline in satisfaction as their spouses over the two years that Cobb studied them.

“The differences in the husbands that did or did not participate may be something that emerges over a period longer than two years,” Cobb speculated.

She warned that the results of study suggest that these programs might actually have an adverse effect on couples who participate in them.

“We have to be cautious in encouraging people to participate in these programs without evidence of their effectiveness,” she reasoned.

This does not mean that couples should avoid counselling completely. Cobb advises couples who want to strengthen their relationship “to seek a program or premarital counselling from a registered psychologist or counsellor.”

Cobb explained that their next step is to look further into the kinds of programs that couples participate to differentiate which aspects are helpful.

“We need to know more about what [types of relationship-education] they are receiving,” she explained.