I’m getting married next week. I’m writing this post well in advance of the wedding, and when this actually gets released, I’ll likely be focused on food, music, clothing, or any of the million things that go into planning a wedding. But I thought it would be worth taking this chance to look into research in psychology about makes a happy married life. What are the predictors of a good marriage?
Although lots of research has looked at what makes people attracted to one another in the first place, it’s been important to understand what happens in relationships over the long term. What are couples doing in successful relationships and what are they doing in unsuccessful ones? To gets some answers, psychologists have done studies with actual married couples to see what makes for a happy married life and what signals disaster ahead.
1. Sharing the Good Things That Happen to You
When you have a good day, you probably enjoy telling people about it. When something exciting happens, sharing the good news can make it even better!
In general, studies have shown that sharing good news can make you feel better. For instance, one study had people keep a diary of their feelings every day for a week. Each day, the participants also wrote down the most positive thing that happened to them that day, and they indicated whether they made any attempt to let other people know about it.
The results showed that on days when people told other people about something good that happened the them, their mood and well-being were more positive.
So what does that mean for marriage? Well think about who you tell your good news to. It’s probably someone close to you. In another study, the researchers looked specifically at married couples, and they were also interested in how people respond to their partners’ good news.
Importantly, telling their spouses about good things that happened to them in their days strengthened their marriage quality only when their partners responded enthusiastically.
So when people tell their spouses about something good that happened to them, and their response is excited and encouraging, it brings couples together. If the spouse responds by finding problems in the good news, appears disinterested, or is even just silently supportive, sharing exciting news can actually weaken marriage quality.
The lesson here is twofold: when something good happens to you, you might find satisfaction in sharing it with your spouse, and when your spouse shares positive news with you, you might consider responding with enthusiasm and support.
2. The Dangers of Keeping Score
I’ve written before about two types of relationships: communal and exchange relationships. Basically, a communal relationship is one in which both people are responsive to one another. They are there for their partners because they want to be, not because they “owe” them something.
An exchange relationship is one where people are keeping score. They keep track of who’s done what for whom throughout the relationship, and they strive to make things even.
Plenty of research has made clear that communal relationships are ideal–especially for relationships like marriage. One recent study showed that the more a couple practices a communal relationship, the more satisfied they are with their marriage. But the more a couple says they “keep score,” the less satisfied they are over time.
This study showed that even though couples tend to acknowledge that a communal relationship is the best way to have a happy married life, they actually practice a communal relationship less and less as their marriage goes on.
3. Taking a New Perspective on Disagreement
When there’s a conflict with a spouse, emotions can run high. The anger that we might feel after getting in a fight with someone else can have negative long-term effects, so how can you keep those emotions in check?
One study trained married couples to take a third-person perspective when thinking about conflicts with their spouse. The training went like this: first, each person would think about a recent disagreement they had with their partner. Then they were asked to think about the disagreement from the perspective of a neutral third party. How would they think about this disagreement?
After this mental exercise, the people in the study would think about the challenges that keep them from seeing conflicts from a neutral perspective, make a plan to take this perspective in future disagreements with their spouses, and consider the benefits that would come from doing this.
To understand the results, it’s worth knowing that marital satisfaction tends to go down with each additional year of marriage. This study was no different–in a control condition, couples said they were less and less happy in their marriage, on average, over two years. However, the couples who tried to take a new perspective on conflicts didn’t show the usual decline in marriage satisfaction. This seems to work because it makes people feel less heated emotion surrounding times of conflict.
More to Come on a Happy Married Life…
That’s it for now! But those were three studies that considered actual married couples to see what the secrets might be to a good marriage and a happy married life. I’ll be sure to file those away for myself and come back to them after all this wedding business is sorted