9 Marriage Styles Defined by Wallerstein and Hetherington

Updated 03/16/19
Credit: Igor Ustynskyy. Getty Images

Do you ever wonder what kind of marriage you have? If you talk to people about what type of marriage they have, they probably say they either have a traditional or a companionate marriage. However, there are quite a few other marriage models, including the marriages of your own parents and grandparents.

Two theorists have much to say on the topic. Judith Wallerstein, with Sandra Blakeslee, penned The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts which describes four distinct marriage models; they focus on how partners relate to see one another in the relationship. Another title that offers a different perspective is For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered by E. Mathis Hetherington with John Kelly. Let's explore some of their ideas.

Judith Wallerstein's Marriage Models

  • Traditional. Wallerstein defines this as a marriage that "has at its core a clear division of roles and responsibilities. The woman takes charge of home and family while the man is the primary wage earner." This may be the type of marriage that your grandparents had, but today it is less common. 
    • In describing its drawbacks, Wallerstein explained that couples "focus so narrowly on bringing up the children that the partners view each other only as parents; they dread the time when the children will leave home, knowing they will be left with little in common."
  • Companionate. This is the "most common form of marriage among younger couples," according to Wallerstein. "... It reflects the social changes of the last two decades. At its cores is friendship, equality, and the value system of the women's movement, with its corollary that the male role, too, needs to change. A major factor in the companionate marriage is the attempt to balance the partners' serious emotional investment in the workplace with their emotional investment in the relationship and the children." Partners in companionate relationships often call one another their best friend. 
    • There is a danger that "it may degenerate into a brother-and-sister relationship," said Wallerstein. "Invested primarily in their respective careers, husband and wife see each other only fleetingly, sharing a bed with little or no sex or emotional intimacy."
  • Rescue. "The healing that takes place during the course of the marriage is the central theme," sais Wallerstein. Most people have trauma in their lives, and some people will never stop healing from it; this includes damage from a dysfunctional childhood or earlier relationships. It is often a marriage of the walking wounded. 
    • As with any situation involving trauma, these types of marriages are sensitive. Trust can be easily broken or manipulated by an inattentive or abusive partner. "Instead of healing, [the relationship becomes] a new forum for replaying earlier traumas. Spouses have the capacity to wound and abuse each other ... [T]he hopes for rescue and comfort that led to the marriage are buried and forgotten."
  • Romantic. For these married couples, the initial romantic spark is essential and exciting and for them, sensuality continues through decades together. Wallerstein said that it is "a lasting, passionately sexual relationship. A couple in a romantic marriage often shares the sense that they were destined to be together."
    • When love is the most important thing in your life, other aspects get left by the wayside. Even Wallerstein warned that this could lead to "freezing husband and wife into a self-absorbed, childlike preoccupation with each other, turning its back on the rest of the world, including the children."

    E. Mavis Hetherington's Marriage Models

    • Traditional. Partners have distinctly defined roles and the relationship is in jeopardy if one spouse decides to change their role. As long as both are okay with their roles, their marriages have a low divorce rate.
    • Cohesive-Individuated. These couples believe in combining gender equity with intimacy allowing personal freedom. Renewal, affection, support, and companionship are important to these individuals whose marriages have a low divorce rate.
    • Pursuer-Distancer. The most common type of marriage with one spouse being aloof and the other wanting more intimacy. This type of relationship has the highest divorce rate.
    • Disengaged. These couples, with a low priority on intimacy and a strong belief in independence, drift along together for years before their marriage crumbles.
    • Operatic. These volatile relationships often have heated fighting followed by passionate lovemaking. Since they are prone to abuse, both emotional and physical, they have a high divorce rate.

    Regardless of the type of marriage you have, if you both get along, feel loving towards each other and have mutual respect, it must be working. Don't focus too much on labels.

    Article updated by Marni Feuerman

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