Can Negative Attributions Predict Marital Dissatisfaction in Engaged Couples?

Engaged couples form patterns of positive and negative behavior that can predict their marital satisfaction. “Serious marital dissatisfaction predicts increased risk for a major depressive episode, even when controlling for history of depression,” said Rebecca E. Osterhout of the New Mexico Veterans Affairs Health Care System, and lead author of a new study examining how engaged couples’ interactions predict marital satisfaction. “Marital distress and divorce are also associated with negative child and family outcomes (e.g., poorer parenting, increased parent-child conflict, increased risk for child conduct, emotional, and behavioral problems).”  Because the engagement period provides a map for the direction the marriage will ultimately take, it is a vital time for developing adaptive strategies. “With this in mind, the current study examined the association of two empirically established predictors of relationship distress in married samples, dyadic behavior and maladaptive attributions, in a sample of engaged couples reporting high levels of relationship satisfaction.”

Attributions are ways in which a partner explains a behavior or event, and maladaptive attributions tend to be intentional, often resulting in the blaming of a partner. “Research indicates that distressed couples tend to make more maladaptive attributions than do couples who are satisfied in their relationships,” said Osterhout. For her study, Osterhout evaluated the attributions of 43 engaged couples as they discussed two marital topics and found that negative attributions did indeed lead to negative behaviors. “This finding is important because it indicates that maladaptive attributions may be an enduring vulnerability that is present and potentially preventable prior to marriage. The presence of the behavior-attribution link prior to marriage suggests that interventions with the goal of preventing marital discord should assess and seek to modify both behavior and maladaptive attributions.” Osterhout added, “Cognitive and behavioral preventative interventions at the pre-marital stage may be particularly effective as satisfied, engaged couples may be more willing and motivated to learn and utilize new relationship skills and may be more likely to recognize the positive benefits of practicing and implementing the skills, which may be more naturally reinforcing.”

Osterhout, Rebecca E., Laura E. Frame, and Matthew D. Johnson. “Maladaptive Attributions and Dyadic Behavior Are Associated in Engaged Couples.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 30.8 (2011): 787-818. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Collins


    November 23rd, 2011 at 3:23 PM

    Sometimes it feels like there are certain people who are desined to be negative and so intent in thinking about only the things that could go wrong instead of focusing on the positive and the things that they have that are good in there lives. I have known people like that, and quite honestly they stress me out too much to be around them too often. I mean, life is tough enough without having someone else’s negativity bringing me down any more. I choose to accentuate the positive instead of dwelling on the negative and those are the kind of people that I try to hang with too.

  • Grace


    November 24th, 2011 at 2:50 PM

    Pre marital counseling was so important for my husband and me, because it taught us the ways to argue and to resolve our issues in a way that did not demean the other person and that helped us to always keep things in perspective. If I choose to alwas rate things in a negative way then of course that is the way that my life is going to feel like it is turning. You have to step back and think for a minue whether this thing that you are disagreeing about is really all that important in the whole scheme of life and whether it is worth going to bed angry over. Chances are, when you step back and try to look at it in a clear headed way, most of us would find that it is certainly not worth all the trouble that it is causing.

  • kelly


    November 25th, 2011 at 12:21 AM

    although I was dating my husband for over two years before we got engaged,the period between the engagement and wedding have us a good chance to really get to know each other as a married couple so to speak.a relationship is pretty different from a marriage and this gap actually gives a good opportunity to see each other and then take it forward into the marriage. everybody should have an ample amount of time between the two!

  • Ollive


    November 25th, 2011 at 11:50 AM

    If somenone already has such problems with being negative and they are not even married yet then they sure do not have a lot to look forward to in that relationship. Marriage can be wonderful with the right person, but it can also be horrible if the two of you cannot communicate and have tha habit of always blaming the other for their own issues! Marriage has to be about give and take, but you can’t always be giving only crap and taking everything good from the partner. Try to stay focused and positive about the good in your relationship instead of only pointing out the bad. There is no perfect relationship: they all take a little work.

  • Jane


    November 27th, 2011 at 10:40 AM

    What a predictor for failure!

    If this was me I would not want to know all of this because I firmly believe that going into the marriage thinking that you are dissatisfied is only going to set you up for failure!

    And who needs that? The divorce rate is high enough as it is!

  • Gabrielle Hudson

    Gabrielle Hudson

    November 28th, 2011 at 4:20 PM

    Ok so one thing you have to think about is whether these couples start out dissatisfied and then make these negative judgements, or does all of the negativity cause that ultimate dissatisfaction?

    I don’t mean to split hairs but maybe they don’t start out that way. Maybe all of that negativity begats that dissatisfaction.

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