The 5 Marriage Types and Their Risk of Divorce

A physician friend of mine recently enjoyed two visits with patients and their spouses in long-term marriages. One patient was 95; his wife was 93. They recently celebrated their 75th anniversary together, for which there is no “golden” or “platinum”. He was amazed at their longevity, something rarely seen today.  A second couple had been married 60 years, and he asked them the secret to their success. She smiled and quipped, “Well, I’m blind, and he’s deaf…that really helps a lot.”

All humor aside, you know I’m all about research that can help determine what makes a marriage successful. A 30-year U.S. study by E. Mavis Hetherington on marriage and divorce identified that there are five types of marriages, and rated their respective odds of divorce. The details can be found in the book For Better (Or Worse): The Science of a Good Marriage.  It was reported in an article titled “What makes a healthy, happy marriage?” in The Times of India.

The two marriage types most likely to remain stable over time are:
The cohesive/individuated marriage—For these couples, marriage is a refuge for the husband and the wife—a place of renewal, support, affection and companionship at the end of each day. It has the second lowest divorce rate.

The traditional marriage—Boasting the lowest divorce rate of all five types, these couples recognize the male breadwinner and female homemaker roles. The success of a traditional marriage means both partners are happy with their roles, perform them well and feel respected by their partner.

The three styles at highest risk of divorce:
The pursuer/distancer marriage—In 80 percent of cases, the woman is the pursuer, and the man is the distance. Generally, she likes to confront or discuss issues, while he withdraws and avoids confrontation. Over time, both partners tend to get fed up.

The disengaged marriage—This couple lacks mutual affection and support. While they rarely argue, they don’t need one another on a daily basis.

The operatic marriage—This couple has dramatic highs and lows, is emotionally volatile, enjoys great make-up sex, and has the highest sexual satisfaction level. The marriage may end when one person (typically the husband) decides the passion isn’t worth the constant conflict.

I’ve never really thought of categorizing marriages into just a few boxes like this, and I’m not sure all marriage types are included. I would describe mine as falling under the cohesive type, and I do like the visual of viewing your marriage as a refuge against the stresses of the world. Do you feel your style or type of marriage is adequately described on the list? What would you add?

Photo: ©Galina Barskaya/

14 responses to “The 5 Marriage Types and Their Risk of Divorce

  1. I guess it’s a good omen that we are both cohesive and traditional! It’s interesting that we did not start out traditional. This happened gradually over time. And when the children are older and I start working again, I imagine we will shift back to cohesive. I wonder how many marriages drift from one type to another?

  2. Meredreth Maynard

    Today’s to-do list:
    1. Quit my job
    2. Buy an apron


  3. On a good day, I describe my 15 year marriage as cohesive. Under stress, we can be operatic or volatile. The key is to manage our volatility, be respectful, and not become hostile. Judith Wallerstein also writes about Types of Marriage in one of her books, The Good Marriage: Traditional, Companionate, Romantic & Rescue. My husband and I both come from Traditional families (even though my mom worked full time), but we do not have a traditional marriage ourselves. There are days when it sounds appealing to be a stay at home mom! We find that most of the couples in our Marriage Prep 101 Workshops want more egalitarian, companionate and romantic relationships. As you know Lori, I am also fascinated by the success of long term relationships. Thank you for another wonderful post.

  4. Thanks for your input, Michelle. I suppose we can all move from one type to another not only over time, but based on a stressful situation, which is also interesting to think about. My readers are just so intuitive! I would agree it seems that many young modern couples are seeking egalitarian/companionate/romantic relationships. However, I still know many who are happily traditional.

  5. Perhaps we have fewer traditional marriages in the San Francisco Bay Area where many families need two incomes to afford living here! I still think of the research findings that the happiest moms were the ones who could work part time. I feel fortunate to be self employed. In my experience happier moms contribute to happier marriages. I also think the key to traditional marital success is that both partner are happy with their roles and feel respected by their partners. Thanks again Lori.

    • I’d love to see the research that part-time moms are happiest in marriage; hadn’t heard that. I definitely agree that happier moms contribute to happier marriages. That’s why I think it means more that the partners are happy with the roles than which particular marriage type they have.

  6. My gut reaction is that our 10-year marriages is the cohesive type. It is the third for both of us. Statistically we’re destined to fail, I suppose. But our marriage is a complete refuge for us both. And we are steadfast in our guard of our marital bond — committed to beating the odds.

    I do see great value in the individual roles of the traditional marriage though. And truthfully, I long for that. But, my husband is unemployed, and now I am the “bread winner.” Our circumstances don’t allow us to fit into the “traditional” type fully. However, I think there is more to it than the breadwinner/homemaker roles. In a broader sense, I believe it’s more of a leader/follower alliance. He is the head of our household, and I fully trust him to lead us. I also trust myself to convey my thoughts to him about our direction in a supportive, loving, respectful way.

    Our collective previous four marriages fall somewhere within the other three types!

    • Never rely on statistics to give you personal odds of success. While stats can be helpful, they sometimes make people believe they have less power or influence over their outcome. For example, I think overblown divorce rates make couples believe their changes of a long-term marriage are less than what they really are. And even if the odds are against you, decide to be the one marrage that succeeds. It sounds like you are both happy with your spiritual and emotional roles in the family, which can be just as important as other areas. Being on the same team and supporting one another is key. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I just finished reading “For Better'” myself. There is some really insightful stuff in there. A great reference and plenty of future blog post fodder.

    I agree with you that marriages don’t necessarily fit neatly into the boxes, but they do provide an interesting grid for identifying how you relate to one another and what that means for marital risk factors. My marriage is a blend of traditional/cohesive (btw my wife works part time). I am thankful that puts us in the most likely success category, but the most important factor is working at your marriage every day.

  8. hmmm. yeah this is a little interesting. We are in more of a traditional role now because we have young kids. I can be a bit of a pursuer and my husband the distancer but he just doesn’t think a lot about the relationship. He is happy with it. It is me that needs to discuss every once in a while. I try to do it with more respect and less judgement. I don’t want to fall into the trap of disengaged but that happens sometimes too. It is hard to find time together when we are not exhausted and just want to relax.

  9. I want to say it’s cohesive on good days but do have some nagging doubts about me being the pursuer on other days! I remember when we went to an Imago couples workshop and the facilitators talked about how there is always one partner who is a turtle in the relationship. He/she hides in his shell when there is dicomfort or conflict, while the “pursuer” knocks on the shell for the turtle to come out and respond. My hubby definitely likes his shell!

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