Politics and Marital Quality: Or How I Wasted My Morning

I had been wondering if political orientation or discrepancies in political orientation might be related to relationship quality. I think this is an interesting question in light of a close presidential election. Fortunately, I had access to some data on these variables from around 330 heterosexual married couples. I conducted some preliminary analyses this morning and the short story is a bunch of null findings.

Measures: Political orientation was measured on the “traditional seven-point scale” where 1=extremely liberal to 7 = extremely conservative (see Knight, 1999). Marital quality was measured using five items from the quality of marriage index (Norton, 1983).  The internal consistencies were typical of this measure (alphas ≥ .90 for wives and husbands)

Descriptive Results: Husbands were slightly more conservative than wives (Husband Mean = 4.63, Wife Mean = 4.33, Pooled SD = 1.36; d = .22). Husbands and wives did not differ in terms of marital quality (Husband Mean = 4.26, Wife Mean = 4.25, Pooled SD = .83, d = .01). There was evidence of spousal similarity for political orientation (ICC = .54) and marital quality (ICC = .62). None of the zero-order correlations involving political orientation and marital quality were impressive or statistically significant (largest r = -.05).

Actor Partner Interdependence Model (APIM) Results: I squared the difference between political orientation scores from husbands and wives and used that score in a very basic dyadic model.  I specified the APIM for interchangeable dyads with the exception of allowing for a mean-level difference in political orientation between wives and husbands.  None of the relevant effects were statistically different from zero:  Actor effect: .008 (SE = .023); Partner Effect: -.015 (SE = .023); Discrepancy Effect: -.013 (SE = .016). Thus, political orientation did not seem to matter for the individual’s report of marital quality or for her/his partner’s report of marital quality.  The discrepancy did not seem to matter either.

A weakness is the single-item measure of political orientation and the fact that these couples had been together for a period of time (Average age of husbands was around 37 years versus 35 years for wives).  Nonetheless, these initial results were not compelling to me.  Darn! It would have made an interesting story.  If anyone else has better data on this issue or more convincing results, let me know.

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Author: mbdonnellan

Professor Social and Personality Psychology Texas A &M University

3 thoughts on “Politics and Marital Quality: Or How I Wasted My Morning”

  1. Fun post, Brent.

    My guess is that political orientation per se–especially measured in a crude way–might play little role in marital quality. All the reasons I can imagine that would make it seem like a potential predictor are rooted in what I know about the correlates of political attitudes. For example, Openness, a correlate of liberalism, has a small association (r’s from 0 to .17) with relationship satisfaction (e.g., Noftle & Shaver, 2006). If Openness is partly responsible for any expected association between lib-con and marital quality, the expected association between lib-con and quality will be even smaller than that between Openness and quality.

    Having said that, I would venture to guess that during the election season couples with diverging opinions on political topics might be more prone to conflict than usual and may experience temporary declines in marital quality. But, most of the time, the kinds of issues that push people to various ends of the lib-con spectrum in the US exist in the background of our lives. Couples tend to argue about dishes, laundry, in-laws, and lack of money. Divergent positions on taxes, health care, foreign policy, and abortion rarely have the opportunity to enter into those discussions.

    1. Hi Chris — I think you have the right take. I had seen a few blurbs on the news and got curious about the issue. I was also a little surprised by the similarity coefficients for this crude measure. It is higher than many Big Five measures.

      As you say, the conflicts often seem to boil down to money, sex, division of labor, and time use.

  2. Interesting post. Research on couples’ similarity has consistently shown very high dyadic similarity on background and demographic variables, including ideology, and weak and inconsistent similarity on personality variables. Marital satisfaction is often highly similar between the two partners as well. In my dissertation research using 60 established couples (5+ years together) ideological similarity was huge, greater than moral similarity and greater than personality similarity. But none of those similarities generally predicted greater satisfaction (except for morality with in some cases did predict greater satisfaction among women). But my sample is very tiny. My guess is that it’s not about ideology per se but about the moral worldviews and sensitivities that underlie political ideologies. I need more couples data though to get enough power and couples are extremely hard to get if you’re not in a relationships lab…

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