We expect that effort predicts relationship satisfaction and stability—which is conventional in both effort and RSR models. Working at one's relationship requires one or both partners to reflect on which behaviors produce positive responses, negative responses, and how to change negative behaviors in a way that brings about beneficial change (Halford, 2011; Halford et al., 2007). Couples who work at their relationships do so persistently which, unsurprisingly, has a stronger and more sustainable effect on a relationship than a one-time burst of effort. Hence, our measures of effort are cast in a way that asks respondents to take a long view on their relationship, not a snapshot.
Although we have good theoretical reason to expect that effort leads to increased relationship quality, an alternative specification is possible. In one alternative, relationship quality predicts effort (Halford et al., 1994). This may be due to the attribution of poor and/or unstable relationships to the notion that one or both partners did not work hard enough. In other work, we have run analyses for these two possibilities (our theoretical model and the alternative) using structural equation models (SEM). Although our data were cross-sectional, the best model (according to model fit and highest variance explained) had effort as a predictor of satisfaction and stability. Thus, statistical analyses supported the theoretical model underlying RSR. In choosing such a model we argue, like the majority of RSR scholars, that interpersonal processes are more likely to produce happy marriages than happy marriages are to produce positive interactions. Such a model is congruent with the expectations of marriage and family practitioners, such as social workers or marriage and family therapists.
Potential Union Type Variation in the Association of Effort and Relationship Quality
Building on the notion that RSR, including effort, is shaped by social context (Halford et al., 1994), relationship effort could have a different association with quality in various types of unions. As such, we discuss each union type and how it may mediate the relationship between effort and quality in detail below.
Nearly 90% of individuals will eventually marry—although there is substantial racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic variability in marriage rates (Cherlin, 2010). Although cohabitation, remarriage, and other family forms continue to emerge, marriage is still viewed by most as the best family structure in which to raise children and is often seen as beneficial to both individuals and society (Cherlin, 2004; Smock, 2004). Compared to other relationship types, first marriages are relatively stable, committed relationships (Amato et al., 2007). While slightly less than half of marriages will end in divorce, other union types are more likely to dissolve (Amato, 2010).
There are two possible relationships between effort and relationship quality among first married couples. In one respect, first married couples are in highly committed relationships and have low levels of relational uncertainty which could minimize the link between effort and quality when compared to cohabiting and remarital relationships. In other words, the amount of effort put into their relationships may be less critical for first married couples because they are already in unions which are typically built on good communication skills, high commitment, and compassionate ideals such as love, friendship, and shared interests (Amato et al., 2007; Burgess & Locke, 1960). On the other hand, low relational uncertainty may yield high returns on effort. For example, Young, Curran and Totenhagen (2012) found that highly committed couples see significantly larger returns on positive interpersonal processes (such as effort) than couples in less stable relationships (e.g., cohabitation or remarriage). However, large positive returns of effort may also mean that individuals and couples who put little effort into their relationships may have poor quality marriages.
People's motivation to cohabit may lead to less stable relationships than exists for first married couples. Many people who choose to cohabit do so because they fear a marriage will end in divorce, and they want uncomplicated options to end a relationship (Miller, Sassler & Kusi-Appouh, 2011). Other times the decision to cohabit is less conscious. Some slide into cohabitation because they need housing, want to benefit from economies of scale, pregnancy, or simply out of convenience. Cohabiters are less likely than married couples to enter their unions on the basis of compassionate ideals or the desire for a stable partnership (Brown, 2004; Brown & Booth, 1996; Huang, Smock, Manning & Bergstrom-Lynch, 2011). They also tend to hold much more liberal attitudes about divorce, sex, the importance of marriage, and the desire for long-term committed relationships than married men and women (Willoughby & Carroll, 2012). On the one hand, this may lead cohabiters to benefit more from effort than married couples because it can reduce relational uncertainty, signal high commitment, and illustrate a desire to take the relationship to the next step (e.g., marriage and/or childbearing). Although we expect that effort is positively associated with relationship quality among cohabiters, it is also possible that the association is less positive than in first marriage because of high relational uncertainty present in cohabitation (Young et al., 2012).
Remarried couples face a number of unique challenges which may be met with increased effort to build high quality relationships. Unlike first married and never-married cohabitating couples, remarried people often have close ties to an ex-spouse, non-normative stepparent-stepchild relationships, must negotiate family roles and boundaries, and regularly try to integrate family cultures (Brimhall, Wampler & Kimball, 2008; Coleman, Fine, Ganong, Downs & Pauk, 2001; Falke & Larson, 2007). Other remarital characteristics, such as heterogeneous partnerships (Shafer, 2012), mean partners may have difficulty working together to build positive relationships. Unclear behavioral norms in remarriage (Sweeney, 2010) may lead to misdirected and unhelpful efforts which fail to improve satisfaction or stability (Meyer et al., 2012). The selective attributes of divorcès, such as their inclination toward divorce and high gender/partner distrust due to first marriage experiences, may also undermine the work each partner puts in (Amato & Booth, 1991). While we expect effort to have smaller effects on satisfaction and stability for remarried couples because of these contextual factors, as they may lead to unstable or uncertain relationships, they could also be associated with a strong, positive relationship between effort and quality.
Overall, our expectation is that effort will be positively associated with satisfaction and stability in all union types. Although our prior discussion focused on the possibility that this positive effect will differ across unions, it is also possible that no or very small differences may be observed. This pattern would be consistent with the notion that strong, stable, and satisfying relationships are possible if couples continuously work at their partnership, are emotionally available to one another, involved, and responsive to each other's needs (Johnson, 2008; Johnson & Greenman, 2006). If such a finding is observed, it suggests that context matters less than the act of putting effort into the relationship. As such, working at one's relationship may lead to trust, love, relational security, interdependence, and beneficial behaviors such as good communication and agreed-upon boundaries (Huston, Caughlin, Houts, Smith & George, 2001; Johnson & Greenman, 2006).