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The American Journal of Family Therapy, 36:367387, 2008

Copyright Taylor & Francis Group, LLC


ISSN: 0192-6187 print / 1521-0383 online
DOI: 10.1080/01926180701804626

Marriage and Family Therapists Endorsement


of Myths About Marriage
BENJAMIN E. CALDWELL
Marital and Family Therapy Graduate Programs, California School of Professional
Psychology, Alliant International University, Los Angeles, California, USA

SCOTT R. WOOLLEY
Marital and Family Therapy Graduate Programs, California School of Professional
Psychology, Alliant International University, San Diego, California, USA

Marriage and family therapy training programs aim to provide


students with research-based knowledge about marriage and divorce. A group of 223 California-based clinical members of the
American Association for Marital and Family Therapy (AAMFT)
was surveyed on their endorsement of 21 myths about marriage.
Therapists provided correct responses to an average of 9.4 of these
items. Endorsement of specific myths correlated with varying demographic, professional and family of origin variables. Implications
for therapist training, practice, and future research are discussed.
Over the past several decades, Americans in general have gradually come to
view marriage more negatively and have become increasingly accepting of
divorce (Pinsof, 2002). This is in spite of a vast and growing body of research
showing that the benefits of marriage and adverse consequences of divorce
are both much greater than had been previously thought (for summaries, see
Dreman, 2000; Waite & Gallagher, 2000).
A myth is defined as a belief that is widely held in spite of overwhelming evidence that it is not true. When the general population endorses
myths about marriage, results are problematic. For example, a couple who
incorrectly believe that children are better off with divorced parents than
with parents who are unhappily married may be at heightened risk for
This article is based on a doctoral dissertation by Benjamin E. Caldwell, titled Marriage
and Family Therapists Attitudes toward Marriage.
The authors would like to thank the participants who graciously shared their opinions.
The authors also would like to thank Janice W. Cone, Ph.D., and Ann W. Lawson, Ph.D., for
their valuable contributions to this research.
Address correspondence to Benjamin Caldwell, Alliant International University, 1000 S.
Fremont Avenue, Unit 5, Alhambra, CA 91803. E-mail: bcaldwell@alliant.edu
367

368

B. E. Caldwell and S. R. Woolley

divorce. They may choose divorce over attempts to repair their relationship,
believing it to be better for all involved in spite of evidence showing that,
for most families, that is not the case (Cherlin, Chase-Lansdale, & McRae,
1998; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994).
Marriage and family therapists can play an important role in improving
the marital health of both their clients and the public by directly confronting
myths about marriage and divorce. A couple who enters a marriage expecting
that romantic love and good luck will be the primary determinants of whether
the marriage survives may feel that the marriage is doomed as romance fades.
An equally ill-informed therapist, believing the same myth, may focus therapy
on attempts to restore romantic love, a short-term fix at best. Well-informed
couples and their therapists, on the other hand, understand that the quality
of the couples friendship is a much stronger determinant of marital longevity
and happiness, and focus their efforts in that direction (Gottman, 1999).

Myths About Marriage


Recent studies have discounted several ideas about marriage that were supported by older research or less sophisticated research methods. Several of
these myths persist, however. Belief in myths about marriage may foster
changes in attitudes toward marriage and divorce, even among marital therapists. Such beliefs could ultimately impact the quality of care provided by
MFTs. Therapists who endorse mythological statements about what makes a
marriage work risk pursuing flawed treatment goals based on that inaccurate
knowledge.
For the purposes of this study, marital myths were collected from reviews by Popenoe (2001, 2002), Larson (1988), and Waite and Gallagher
(2000). While other worthwhile reviews are certainly available (e.g., Lazarus,
1985), these four reviews were chosen because of their specific focus on
marital myths, their emphasis on empirical research and, in the case of
Larson (1988), the availability of information about the popularity of those
myths among both professional marriage educators and undergraduate college students. A total of 31 unique myths are discussed in the four reviews.
Of those, the following 20 myths were selected for use as part of this study.
Selection was based upon the definitiveness of current research indicating
the statement was a myth, and the degree to which the false belief was held
by the general population (when known). Citations immediately following
the myths refer to the reviews in which the myths were highlighted.
HAVING CHILDREN USUALLY INCREASES MARITAL
(LARSON, 1988; POPENOE, 2001, 2002)

SATISFACTION FOR BOTH PARTNERS

The arrival of the first child usually decreases marital satisfaction for both
partners, as they struggle with increased stress and responsibility and have

369

Marital Myths

less time to spend on the marital relationship (Cowan & Cowan, 1995;
Heaton, 1990; Waite & Lillard, 1991; Shapiro, Gottman, & Carrere, 2000).
The literature has been clear on this point for some time; Larson (1988) cites
six separate studies from the 1970s debunking this myth.
MEN

REAP FAR GREATER BENEFITS FROM MARRIAGE THAN WOMEN (POPENOE,

WAITE

&

GALLAGHER,

2001;

2000)

Early reports that marriage benefits men much more than it does women
(e.g., Bernard, 1972) led to a small feminist backlash against the institution of
marriage itself, with some authors calling on women to avoid it altogether (for
a more thorough review of feminist perspectives on marriage, see Rampage,
2002). Recent research, however, has shown that men and women both
benefit substantially from marriage, with benefits to men being largely health
related and benefits to women being largely economic (Waite & Gallagher,
2000), though both sexes receive some of the benefits usually attributed to
the other. In short, Both men and women live longer, happier, healthier
and wealthier lives when they are married (Popenoe, 2002, paragraph 1).
COLLEGE-EDUCATED WOMEN ARE
EDUCATION (POPENOE, 2002)

LESS LIKELY TO MARRY THAN WOMEN WITH LESS

Decades ago, women were less likely to marry if they were college educated. But the education trend has since reversed, with college-educated
women now being more likely to marry than their less educated counterparts
(Goldstein & Kenney, 2001).
SINGLE

PEOPLE HAVE MORE SEX AND CONSIDER THEIR SEX LIVES MORE SATISFYING

THAN MARRIED COUPLES

(POPENOE, 2002)

While single people may brag about their sexual experiences more often than
their married counterparts, married people actually have sex more often and
find the sex more physically and emotionally satisfying (Laumann, Gagnon,
Michael, & Michaels, 1994; Waite & Joyner, 2001). For the purposes of this
study, this myth was split into two separate myths, Single people have more
sex than married people and Single people consider their sex lives more
satisfying than married people consider theirs to be. This split left a total of
21 myths to be included in this study.
THE

HIGH DIVORCE RATE WEEDS OUT UNHAPPY MARRIAGES, LEAVING THE AVERAGE

MARRIAGE HAPPIER THAN

20

YEARS AGO

(POPENOE, 2002)

The average marriage is no happier than it was 20 years ago. In fact, couples
today experience more marital conflict and less interaction as a couple than

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B. E. Caldwell and S. R. Woolley

their counterparts in the 1970s and 1980s (Amato, Johnson, Booth, & Rogers,
2003; Rogers & Amato, 1997, 2000).

COHABITATION BEFORE MARRIAGE


1988; POPENOE, 2001, 2002)

DECREASES THE CHANCE OF DIVORCE

(LARSON,

This myth appears to be so widespread, and has so strongly been contradicted by empirical research, that it appears in three of the four reviews of
marital myths utilized in this study. Couples who cohabitate prior to marriage divorce more often than those who do not (DeMaris & Rao, 1992;
Kamp Dush, Cohan, & Amato, 2003). It is presently unclear the degree to
which cohabitation in and of itself is the problem, and the degree to which
a selection effect occurs, wherein those who choose to cohabitate prior to
marriage have a differing set of values around marriage than those who do
not. A review of cohabitation literature by Popenoe and Whitehead (2002)
found support for both and noted that, while some studies have been unclear
on the degree to which cohabitation affects divorce rates, no study has ever
demonstrated cohabitation reducing chances of divorce. Stanley, Rhoades,
and Markman (2006) also found support for both arguments, and proposed
an explanation for how the risk of divorce and dissatisfaction may be raised
by the cohabitation experience itself, beyond simple selection effects. They
argued that the inertia of cohabitation (p. 499) may lead some cohabitating
couples to marry when they otherwise would not have deemed themselves
ready to do so.

THE

MAJORITY OF COUPLES WHO DIVORCE ARE HIGH-CONFLICT COUPLES

Both Popenoe (2001) and Waite and Gallagher (2000) include discussion on
what happens in a marriage when the marriage becomes unhappy. The
myth as Popenoe puts it is that Being very unhappy at certain points in
a marriage is a good sign that the marriage will eventually end in divorce
(paragraph 9) and backs up his conclusion this is a myth with research
on marital conflict. Amato and Booth (1997) found that less than a third
of divorcing parents had marriages that could be considered high-conflict.
A mere 30 percent of divorcing spouses reported three or more serious
arguments in the past month, and less than one in four said they and their
spouses disagreed often or very often. Other studies have shown a variety
of marital problems that are predictive of divorce, with conflict per se not on
the list. For example, in a study by Amato and Rogers (1997), infidelity, drug
use, and spending money foolishly were most strongly predictive of divorce.
The presence of conflict in a relationship is relatively weak in predicting
divorce; examining how couples resolve conflict produces much stronger
predictors (Gottman, Coan, Carrere, & Swanson, 1998).

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Marital Myths

DIVORCE

PROCEEDINGS ARE USUALLY INITIATED BY MEN

(POPENOE, 2001)

Women initiate about two-thirds of divorces (Brinig & Allen, 2000; Mather,
2003). Possible reasons for this include womens tendency to monitor their
marriages more closely than men (Epstein & Baucom, 2002), child-custody
laws that in some states favor women, and the likelihood that men will be
involved in problematic behaviors such as drinking (Brinig & Allen, 2000).

CHILDREN

DO BETTER IN STEPFAMILIES THAN SINGLE-PARENT HOMES

(POPENOE, 2001)

While stepfamilies do offer advantages over single-parent homes, such as


higher income levels and the presence of role models of both sexes, children
seem to do no better and may in fact fare worse in stepfamilies than in singleparent homes after divorce (Jeynes, 2000; Kerr & Beaujot, 2002; Popenoe,
1994; Ram & Hou, 2003). One possible reason for this is that stepfamilies
have their own unique struggles, including interpersonal conflicts with new
parent figures and a very high risk of family breakup (Popenoe, 2001,
paragraph 8). Another possible explanation is the repeated family disruption
that comes with stepfamilies, who have first transitioned to a single-parent
family and then experience a second disruption as the family is reconstituted
into a stepfamily.

IF

DIVORCED PARENTS PUT FORTH POSITIVE ATTITUDES ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS, THEIR

CHILDREN ARE NO MORE LIKELY TO DIVORCE THAN CHILDREN OF MARRIED PARENTS

(POPENOE, 2001)
Children from families who experienced divorce consistently report more
negative attitudes toward marriage than their peers, regardless of what attitudes toward marriage the parents attempt to communicate to their children
(Gibardi & Rosen, 1992; Inman-Amos, Hendrick, & Hendrick, 1994; Jennings,
Salts, & Smith, 1991; McDonald, 2001).

HUSBANDS

MARITAL SATISFACTION IS HIGHER WHEN WIVES ARE FULL-TIME HOMEMAKERS

THAN WHEN THEY ARE EMPLOYED

(LARSON, 1988)

Early studies appeared to show that marital satisfaction decreased for both
partners when the wife was employed outside of the home (Axelson, 1963;
Hoffman & Nye, 1974). Given the realities of differing gender role expectations and the transitions occurring for women in general at the time of
these studies, they may have been accurate reflections of married life in that
era. However, research from the mid-1970s onward fails to find a consistent or significant difference in marital satisfaction for either partner based
on the employment status of the wife (Larson, 1988). Schoen, Rogers, and

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B. E. Caldwell and S. R. Woolley

Amato (2006, p. 525) found no significant relationship between wives employment level and husbands marital satisfaction, concluding instead that
[W]ives employment makes marriages more stable but not any happier (or
unhappier).

WIVES

MARITAL SATISFACTION IS HIGHER WHEN THEY ARE FULL-TIME HOMEMAKERS

THAN WHEN THEY ARE EMPLOYED

(LARSON, 1988)

Again, since the 1970s research has found no consistent and significant difference in marital satisfaction for either partner based on the employment
status of the wife (Larson, 1988; Schoen, Rogers, & Amato, 2006). Some
studies suggest that wives employment may actually raise their marital satisfaction (e.g., Rogers & De Boer, 2001), though such a link remains only
weakly supported (for a review, see Schoen, Rogers, & Amato, 2006).

HUSBANDS MAKE
(LARSON, 1988)

MORE LIFESTYLE ADJUSTMENTS IN MARRIAGE THAN WIVES

Men tend to be less involved in their marriages than women and are less
affected by the different stages of the family life cycle (Larson, 1988, p. 9).
Most studies find that women make more adjustments in marriage than men
do, and that women find marriage more stressful than men (Bell, Daly,
& Gonzales, 1987; Chickering & Havighurst, 1981; Glenn, 1975). Women
typically accept influence from their husbands, while many men are not so
accommodating with their wives (Gottman, 1999).

THE

MORE SOMEONE GIVES THEIR SPOUSE INFORMATION, POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE, THE

GREATER THE MARITAL SATISFACTION OF BOTH PARTNERS

(LARSON, 1988)

Only positive self-disclosure increases marital satisfaction (Holman & Brock,


1986; Schumm, Barnes, Bollman, Jurich, & Bugaighis, 1986). More recently,
Gottman (1999) has demonstrated that the quality of interactions, in particular
the ratio of positive interactions to negative ones, is far more impactful on
the satisfaction of both partners than the simple frequency of interactions.

UNTIL DEATH DO US PART MEANS SIGNIFICANTLY MORE TIME TODAY THAN


50 YEARS AGO, DUE TO HIGHER LIFE EXPECTANCIES (POPENOE, 2002)

IT DID

Longer life expectancies are primarily a product of reduced infant and child
mortality. With that factored out, what little increase in life expectancy over
the past 50 years remains is largely negated by the later age at which people
are marrying in the United States (Glenn, 1997). Government data supports

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Marital Myths

this conclusion. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC; 2002) reports that
life expectancy at birth continues to rapidly increase, adding 9 years since
1950. Life expectancy at age 20, however, is increasing much more slowly,
adding roughly 6.5 years in the same time period. The average age at first
marriage in the United States is increasing at a similar rate, adding 5 years for
women and 4 years for men since 1950 (Center for Family and Demographic
Research, 2002). Together, these statistics mean that a marriage until death
do us part is not getting substantially longer.

FOLLOWING

A DIVORCE, THE ECONOMIC STANDARD OF LIVING DROPS ROUGHLY THE

SAME AMOUNT FOR BOTH PARTNERS

(POPENOE, 2001)

Popenoe noted that specific figures on mens and womens changes in standard of living following a divorce had persisted in the literature in spite of
their having been widely discredited. Divorce increases a mans economic
standard of living, while lowering it for his ex-wife, though neither change
is as dramatic as the numbers Popenoe noted as having gained notoriety.
This gender gap has been steady in recent years (Peterson, 1996).

MARRIED WOMEN ARE


GALLAGHER, 2000)

AT GREATER RISK FOR VIOLENCE THAN SINGLE WOMEN

(WAITE &

Popenoe (2002) also discussed the issue, narrowing it specifically to domestic


violence. Overall, women who are married are at less risk for becoming
victims of violence than their single counterparts (Waite & Gallagher, 2000).
The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), a nationally representative
sample of 100,000 United States residents, treated marriage as a dichotomous
variable (married vs. nonmarried) and found nonmarried people of both
genders at much greater risk of violence ( p < 0.0001; Lauritsen, 2001). In a
separate review of earlier NCVS data, the U.S. Department of Justice found
females and males who had never married were nearly [four] times more
likely to experience violent victimization than those who were married
(Craven, 1997, p. 4). Both studies involving NCVS data included instances
of violence within the home. Additional studies from Australia and Canada
have reached the same conclusion: married women are at much lower risk of
becoming victims of violence than their unmarried counterparts (Coumarelos
& Allen, 1998; Federal/Provincial Territorial Ministers Responsible for the
Status of Women, 2002). Domestic violence occurs at substantially higher
rates for both separated (Craven, 1997) and unmarried, cohabiting couples
(Magdol, Moffitt, Caspi, & Silva, 1998) than for married couples. While this
may be in part due to underreporting, there is a substantial body of literature
suggesting that marriage increases mens investment in their families and
curbs violent tendencies (Popenoe, 2002).

374

THE

B. E. Caldwell and S. R. Woolley


FACTORS MOST OFTEN CITED BY LONG-MARRIED COUPLES AS REASONS FOR THEIR

SUCCESSFUL MARRIAGES ARE ROMANTIC LOVE AND GOOD LUCK

(LARSON, 1988;

POPENOE, 2002)
Larsons (1988) review of literature concluded most couples do not identify
romantic love as the kind of love that helps maintain marital satisfaction over
the life span (p. 10). More recently, Gottman (1999) found that a couples
perception of the quality of their friendship is most predictive of their longterm marital success.

CHILDREN

ARE BETTER OFF WITH DIVORCED PARENTS THAN WITH PARENTS WHO ARE

UNHAPPILY MARRIED

(POPENOE, 2001; WAITE & GALLAGHER, 2000)

The effects of parental divorce in and of itself are pervasive and long-lasting
for many children (Cherlin, Chase-Lansdale, & McRae, 1998; McLanahan
& Sandefur, 1994). Married parentseven unhappily married parentscan
provide children with benefits divorced parents cannot, including greater
economic standing, stronger family bonds, stronger connections with the
community, more available time for parent-child interaction, and better overall emotional health (Waite & Gallagher, 2000).

THE

QUALITY OF A MARRIED COUPLES SEX LIFE IS THE SINGLE BEST STATISTICAL

PREDICTOR OF OVERALL MARITAL SATISFACTION

(LARSON, 1988)

In a study comparing overall marital satisfaction with nine other variables,


the quality of a couples sex life ranked fourth, behind affective and problemsolving communication, common interests, and amount and quality of leisure
time together (Snyder, 1979). Broadly, the quality of a couples friendship is
far more essential to their marital satisfaction than the quality of their sex life
(Gottman, 1999).

Factors Impacting Endorsement of Myths About Marriage


PERSONAL

EXPERIENCE AND DEMOGRAPHIC FACTORS

Individual beliefs about marriage and divorce, including endorsement of


specific myths about marriage, may be fostered by personal experiences
such as divorce. These beliefs may also be connected to demographic factors,
such as age, ethnicity, and religion. Personal experience and demographic
factors have long been known to influence attitudes toward marriage (e.g.,
Gibardi & Rosen, 1992; Jennings, Salts, & Smith, 1991; Thornton, 1985); it is
not known, however, how such variables correlate with factual knowledge
about marriage.

Marital Myths

375

EDUCATION
MFTs are specifically trained in marriage and divorce issues. As part of this
training, it is expected that MFT programs would expose students to current
research in marriage and divorce. Such education could effectively counter
any erroneous beliefs fostered through personal experience or demographic
factors.

HYPOTHESES
1. Marriage and family therapists endorsement of myths about marriage will
be related to personal experience and demographic factors.
2. Marriage and family therapists endorsement of myths about marriage will
be significantly related to professional factors including degree level and
the amount of training they have had in current research findings on
marriage and divorce.

METHOD
Characteristics of the Sample Group
Based on the results of a computerized power analysis (Erdfelder, Faul, &
Buchner, 1996), 710 surveys were mailed to a randomly selected sample of
California clinical members of the American Association for Marriage and
Family Therapy (AAMFT). This group was chosen because of its similarity
to the AAMFT nationally (Northey, 2002) and the likelihood that members
would be actively engaged in the practice of couples therapy. A total of 223
usable responses were received (31.4%).
Selected demographic and professional characteristics are presented in
Table 1. The demographic profile that emerged of the sample group was
largely similar to the California Division of AAMFT (Northey, personal communication, June 7, 2004), and the California Association of Marriage and
Family Therapists (CAMFT; Riemersma, 2004), and AAMFT nationally (Doherty & Simmons, 1996; Northey, 2002). Even where demographic similarities
exist, however, there may be other differences between California MFTs and
MFTs in the rest of the country, due to regional differences in attitudes
(Trent & South, 1992) and differences in state requirements for education
and licensing.

Measures
Participants completed a questionnaire on demographic, professional, and
family of origin variables; a survey of common myths about marriage; and a
brief measure of social desirability responses (Reynolds, 1982).

376

B. E. Caldwell and S. R. Woolley

TABLE 1 Selected Demographic and Professional Characteristics


Characteristic

Present study

n
Age

223
M = 53.6
SD = 9.9
74% female
26% male
87% Caucasian
5% Multiple/Mixed

Gender
Ethnicity

2% Asian
2% Other
1% Hispanic
<1% African-American
<1% Native American
Marital status
67% married
19% divorced
7% never been married
5% widowed
1% separated
Experience
M = 17.1 years, SD = 8.5
Highest degree 78% masters
22% doctorate
Primary
28% systems/family
theoretical
systemsa
orientation
27% cognitive behavioral
19% eclectic
15% object
relations/psychodynamic
9% humanistic/existential
6% Bowen
6% postmodern
3% emotion-/attachmentfocused
<3% (several)
Religious
22% Christian
affiliation
16% No formal affiliation
13% Catholic
12% Jewish
7% Protestant
<5% (several)
a Participants

AAMFT nationally
(Northey, 2002)

CAMFT (Riemersma,
2004

292
M = 53
SD = 8.6
58% female
42% male
95% Caucasian
2% Native
American/Alaskan
2% Other
1% Hispanic
1% Asian

900
M = 54.6
SD not given
80% female
20% male
93% Caucasian
2% Latino
1% African-American
1% Multiracial
1% Asian/Pacific
Islander

1% African-American
Not given

Not given

M = 16.4, SD = 7.3
74% masters
25% doctorate
27% cognitive
behavioral

Not given
84% masters
16% doctorate
Not given

11% multisystemic
8% eclectic
7% solution focused
4% behavioral
3% Bowen
3% psychodynamic
<3% (several)
Not given

Not given

could list more than one theory.

DEMOGRAPHIC

QUESTIONNAIRE

In addition to standard demographic variables such as gender, age, and


ethnicity, this questionnaire asked respondents for information on professional variables, such as primary theoretical orientation, and family of origin

Marital Myths

377

variables, including parental marital status, childhood home structure, and


frequency of witnessing conflict and parental alcohol use. It was believed
these personal experiences could influence specific beliefs about marriage.
MARITAL

MYTHS SURVEY

A questionnaire was developed to assess MFTs knowledge of martial myths.


The instrument asks respondents to agree or disagree with 25 statements
about marriage, or to provide a response of unsure/dont know. Those
25 statements are based on the 21 myths derived from previous reviews,
in addition to four common knowledge items. These common knowledge
items may have had the effect of disguising the nature of the questionnaire
(Larson, 1988). Six items were reverse-keyed. These items were phrased
in a manner to be factually true and dichotomous with the popular myth.
For example, the myth, Married women are at greater risk for violence than
single women, was reverse-keyed. It was presented on the survey as Single
women are at greater risk for violence than married women. Disagreement
with reverse-keyed items was consistent with endorsement of the myth.
While the unsure/dont know response choice allowed for more textured responses than simply using two forced-choice alternatives, coding
responses dichotomously (correct responses coded as 1, incorrect and unsure/dont know responses coded as 0) improved internal consistency.
Other studies have found similar effects on internal consistency when a
middle-ground response is included as an option (Little, Lindenberger, &
Nesselroade, 1999).
In pilot testing, dichotomous coding yielded an initial alpha of .55.
Removing items least consistent with the others in order to maximize internal
consistency produced an 18-item questionnaire with an alpha of .68, similar
to that found by Larson (1988). The 25-item questionnaire and the threechoice response set were kept for the added depth of information they could
provide. While some myths may not fit neatly with the others into a pattern
of knowledge about marriage, this would not diminish the importance of
knowing which myths are most commonly endorsed by MFTs and which
MFTs are more likely to endorse specific myths.
SOCIAL

DESIRABILITY SCALE

To ensure participants responses were not overly influenced by perceived


social desirability, participants completed a 13-item short form (Reynolds,
1982) of the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale (Crowne & Marlowe,
1960). The 13-item short form correlates at r = .92 with the full 33-item
Marlowe-Crowne scale, and has internal consistency of r = .76 using KuderRichardson formula 20 (vs. r = 0.82 for the full scale; Reynolds, 1982).

378

B. E. Caldwell and S. R. Woolley

RESULTS
Marital Myths Survey
Participants responses on individual items are summarized in Table 2. Practicing MFTs provided correct responses to an average of 12.50 of the 25
items on the myths questionnaire (n = 208; SD = 2.75). Excluding the four
common knowledge items, the average MFT provided correct responses
to an average of 9.4 out of 21 myths. The average MFT incorrectly endorsed 7.38 untrue statements about marriage (SD = 2.52), or 7.00 (SD =
2.41) when excluding the common knowledge items. Remaining responses
were Unsure/dont know. Unlike in Larsons (1988) study, respondents in
the present study were offered an Unsure/Dont know option and were
presented statements with which to Agree or Disagree. Larson presented
statements in the form of true/false questions. Even if every Unsure/Dont
know response in this study was counted as a correct answer, the present
group would still perform much worse than Larsons group on almost every myth appearing in both studies. This may indicate that the family life
educators Larson studied focused more on research as part of their training.
Table 2 also notes the subgroups, defined by professional, demographic,
and educational variables, who performed significantly better or worse on
specific myths than their counterparts. For example, more experienced therapists were more likely to correctly identify the statement Having children
usually brings a married couple closer together as a myth. Therapists who
identified their primary theoretical orientation as cognitive-behavioral were
more likely than therapists of other orientations to incorrectly endorse the
myth that The majority of couples who divorce are high-conflict couples.
To guard against spurious correlations, given the high number of variables
being assessed, only correlations significant at p < .01 were included. (Ethnicity and sexuality were not included as factors on this table, because the
low numbers of non-Caucasian and non-heterosexual participants prevented
meaningful interpretation of group differences.)

Social Desirability Scale


Scores on the social desirability scale (M = 5.6, SD = 2.8, n = 214) did not significantly correlate with the myths questionnaire. No individual items on the
myths questionnaire showed significant correlations with social desirability.

DISCUSSION
Evaluation of Hypotheses
The first hypothesis was supported. For many myths, endorsement of the
myth was significantly correlated with particular personal experiences and
demographic factors, including marital status, years of experience, religiosity,
age, income, children, and even theoretical orientation. Table 2 highlights

379

Marital Myths
TABLE 2 Item Responses on Knowledge Questionnaire

Statement
Couples who marry under the age
of 18 are more likely to
eventually divorce than those
who marry later.d
The divorce rate in America
increased from 1960 to 1990.d
About half of the couples getting
married this year will eventually
divorce.d
Most young, single, never-married
people will eventually marry.d
Having children usually brings a
married couple closer.
Men reap far greater benefits from
marriage than women.
College-educated women are less
likely to marry than women with
less education.
Married people have more sex
than single people.
Married people consider their sex
lives more satisfying than single
people consider theirs to be.
The high divorce rate weeds out
unhappy marriages, leaving the
average marriage happier than
20 years ago.
Cohabitation before marriage
increases the chance of divorce.

The majority of couples who


divorce are high-conflict couples.
Divorce proceedings are usually
initiated by women.
Children do better in stepfamilies
than single-parent homes.
If divorced parents put forth
positive attitudes about
relationships, their children are
no more likely to divorce than
children of married parents.
Husbands marital satisfaction is
higher when wives are full-time
homemakers than when they are
employed.
Wives marital satisfaction is higher
when they are full-time
homemakers than when they are
employed.

% correct
in Larson,
%
1988
correct (n = 50)b

Subgroups more
likely (+) or less
likely () to answer
correctlyc at p < .01

True/
Falsea

221

81

100

None

220

84

98

None

220

80

N/A

None

220

64

92

Younger therapists (+)

217

69

90

219

34

N/A

220

N/A

More experienced
therapists (+)
Men (+), Bowen
therapists ()
None

219

32

N/A

None

220

42

N/A

Married participants
(+)

221

57

N/A

None

220

36

100

220

60

N/A

218

30

N/A

Those assigning greater


importance to
religious/spiritual
activity (+),
Christians (+)
Cognitive-behavioral
therapists (-)
None

220

56

N/A

221

27

N/A

220

46

60

None

220

70

92

None

Those with fewer


children (+)
None

(Continued on next page.)

380

B. E. Caldwell and S. R. Woolley

TABLE 2 Item Responses on Knowledge Questionnaire (Continued)

Statement
The more someone gives their
spouse information, positive
and negative, the greater the
marital satisfaction of both
partners.
Following a divorce, the
economic standard of living
drops roughly the same
amount for both partners.
Until death do us part means
significantly more time today
than it did 50 years ago, due
to higher life expectancies.
Husbands make more life style
adjustments in marriage than
wives.
Single women are at greater
risk for violence than
married women.
The factors most often cited
by long-married couples as
reasons for their successful
marriages are romantic love
and good luck.
Children are better off with
divorced parents than with
parents who are unhappily
married.
The quality of a married
couples sex life is the single
best statistical predictor of
overall marital satisfaction.
a Respondents

% correct
in Larson,
%
1988
correct (n = 50)b

Subgroups more
likely (+) or less
likely () to answer
correctlyc at p < .01

True/
Falsea

221

23

58

None

221

88

N/A

None

221

24

N/A

Buddhists (+)

220

77

100

None

221

N/A

220

77

86

220

11

N/A

Those with more experience


(+), those who had taken
more graduate classes
emphasizing marriage and
divorce research (+)
Younger therapists (+),
lower income therapists
(+), those with masters
degrees (+), those with
fewer children (+)
Postmodern therapists (+)

221

73

90

Lower income therapists (+)

could either mark agree, disagree or unsure/dont know in response to each item.
A correct response would be to agree with a true item or disagree with a false one. In Larson (1988),
respondents were offered only true and false responses, which, due to respondent guessing, may
have inflated the percentage of correct answers in that study compared to the current one.
b Larsons 50 professionals were 28 male and 22 female members of the Education and Enrichment
Section of the National Council on Family Relations. It is reasonable to assume this group would be
more up-to-date on marital research than the average MFT. Also, statements presented in the current
study, while comparable to those used in Larson (1988), are not identical. Statements are shown as they
were presented in the current study. c Because Pearson coefficients do not account for the high number
of variables assessed here, only those relationships significant at p < .01 (two-tailed) were considered
significant so as to minimize the possibility of Type I error. In the case of dichotomous groups (e.g.
gender) only the group more likely to answer correctly is shown. Ethnicity and sexuality were excluded
as factors in this list, because the small numbers in all groups other than Caucasian and heterosexual
preclude meaningful interpretation. d Common knowledge item.

Marital Myths

381

these connections. In many cases, the connections between specific variables


and a tendency to correctly or incorrectly identify specific myths makes
sense. For example, it seems logical that married therapists would have
a more keen understanding of the sex lives of married people than their
unmarried counterparts. It also is understandable that cognitive-behavioral
therapists would presume that most divorces are based on high levels of
conflict, even though this presumption is ultimately incorrect. In other instances, however, the connections make less sense. Postmodern therapists
were more likely than therapists of other orientations to correctly identify the
statement Children are better off with divorced parents than parents who are
unhappily married as a myth. As this does not appear to be clearly linked
with any element of postmodern theory, it may be a spurious correlation.
The second hypothesis was not supported. Neither degree level nor
the number of classes one had in graduate training emphasizing research on
marriage and divorce appeared to impact endorsement of myths about marriage. On one myth, those with doctoral degrees actually performed worse
than those with masters degrees. On only one specific myth did the number
of classes one had emphasizing marriage research have a positive effect.

Limitations
The focus on MFTs in this study limits the degree to which results can be
generalized to therapists in other related disciplines, such as Psychology.
Even among MFTs, there is limited information available to determine the
representativeness of this sample; clinical members of AAMFT based in California may be similar to MFTs across the country on known demographic
characteristics (Northey, 2002), but this does not necessarily mean they are
also similar in knowledge. Within California, clinical members of AAMFT
represent only a minority of licensed MFTs, and it is not known how nonmembers of AAMFT might have fared on the same survey.
A limitation of this study may come from the low internal consistency
of the myths questionnaire. However, Little, Lindenberger, and Nesselroade
(1999) caution against the temptation to throw out results in their entirety
based on this single measure. They argue that while a low alpha should
trigger a close examination of individual item responses, it is not sufficient
information to conclude that either an overall score or the construct it presumes has no utility. The marital myths examined here are largely not interdependent. However, in the interest of presenting results conservatively,
the focus in reporting of this study is directed more toward individual items
than overall scores on the myths questionnaire.

Implications for Treatment


These results must not be interpreted as a display of competence, or lack
thereof, among practicing MFTs. No research to date has demonstrated a

382

B. E. Caldwell and S. R. Woolley

link between endorsement of myths about marriage and decreased therapist


effectiveness in marital therapy. Furthermore, as marital treatments become
more manualized, the influence of a particular therapists specific knowledge
on therapy outcomes may diminish. This influence would be replaced by the
therapists ability to simply understand and carry out the particular techniques
involved in the manualized treatment of choice.
However, it stands to reason that if MFTs endorse certain myths about
marriage, those beliefs could find their way into the therapy room. Therapist
knowledge is known to correlate with therapist behavior around such issues
as the use of standardized assessment instruments with couples (Lavee &
Avisar, 2006). Boisvert and Faust (2006) explored a variety of other instances
in which a connection between research knowledge and therapist behavior are likely to not only be linked, but also influence therapy outcomes.
Knowledge about marriage could have similar impacts. For example, a therapist who incorrectly believes children are better off with divorced parents
than unhappily married parents may pass this myth to clients, thereby encouraging clients to consider divorce as something that may benefit their
children (Doherty, 1999). Similarly, if a therapist believes that living together
before marriage lowers the chances of divorce, the therapist may encourage
a couple to live together to try out the relationship, and thus unknowingly
increase the couples chances of divorce. This subtle influence could occur
even among therapists using manualized treatment methods.
Again, these results should not be interpreted as a display of competence in treatment. These results may instead be interpreted as reflective of
the limited exposure some MFTs have to current research regarding marriage
and divorce. While they are required by law in California to receive continuing education on domestic violence, legal and ethical issues, HIV/AIDS,
and aging (Board of Behavioral Sciences, 2004), MFTs can go their entire careers without taking an hour of continuing education focused on marriage.
It benefits MFTs to stay current on research findings related to marriage and
divorce throughout their careers. Many evidently do not. Until measures are
implemented to insure that MFTs are staying current on the research (for
example, specific requirements for continuing education in couples work),
clients and potential clients of MFTs, along with referral sources, would be
well-advised to question their therapists about the therapists beliefs surrounding marriage. They also would be well advised to ask how effectively
those therapists keep up with marriage research.

Implications for Training


More effective ways must be developed and tested for including research
findings on marriage in the MFT graduate curriculum. Remarkably, when
asked how many classes in their graduate training focused on marriage and
divorce research, 28% of respondents answered zero. An additional 20%

Marital Myths

383

said they only had one such class. As age did not appear to make a substantive difference in overall knowledge about marriage, it does not appear that
more recent graduation leads to more accurate knowledge. Surely, though,
where myths about marriage persist among MFTs, the graduate training process provides the best opportunity to correct them. Course content focused
specifically on research around marriage and other family life factors may
need to be increased in MFT training programs.
Some may argue that the research findings discussed in the myths questionnaire are normative, reflective of general trends among married and
divorced families, and these are not as important for therapists to be trained
in as methods for working with each unique couple. However, training
programs frequently emphasize the importance of normative knowledge in
providing a framework for therapy. Cross-cultural education in particular is
based on the notion that the culturally competent mental health professional must possess specific knowledge and information about the particular
group with which he or she is working (Sue & Sue, 2003, p. 21). Without
normative knowledge on marriage and divorce, knowledge in other areas
such as treatment planning, research methodology, family development, and
theory, lacks an important foundational element that would seem essential
to the effective practice of marital therapy.

Implications for Research


Nearly every MFT in this survey endorsed at least one myth about marriage.
It is unknown at this time how such beliefs manifest themselves in the couple
therapy process or how they affect therapy outcomes. Given the research
showing that therapist beliefs about age, weight, race, and social class may
impact therapy process and outcome (Davis-Coelho, Waltz, & Davis-Coelho,
2000; Franklin, 1985; Perlick & Atkins, 1984; Spector, 2001), it seems likely
that marital therapy would be affected by beliefs about marriage. Future
research may more directly address these issues.

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