What can you do to have a happy marriage?
The answer might surprise you.
Although many Americans are familiar with the most commonly cited causes of divorce (e.g., communication, financial stress, etc), the contributors to a happy marriage are less publicized. Perhaps this cultural fascination with divorce is influenced by the shock-value of what have now become notorious divorce statistics: about 41% of first marriages end in divorce.*
The statistics on marital satisfaction are no less dismal: only one-third of individuals are happily married.** So should couples resign themselves to the eventual reality that they will be unsatisfied in their marriages or divorced?
There’s hope for couples. Here’s why:
In a popular article published in The Atlantic in November 2014, Emily Esfahni Smith revealed research completed by the famed marital-researcher Dr. John Gottman that indicates two practices that buffer couples against unsatisfied and unsuccessful marriages:
Kindness and generosity
Dr. John Gottman learned that couples who act with kindness and generosity in their marriages are significantly more likely to remain happily married, and those couples who act with contempt or “stonewall” their partners by ignoring them are significantly more likely to be unhappily married or divorced. Before exploring the importance of kindness and generosity in marital satisfaction further, note the significance of Dr. Gottman’s research: after years of studying marital satisfaction, Dr. Gottman’s “Love Lab” can predict divorce with 94% accuracy.
So how did the couples in Dr. Gottman’s Love Lab practice kindness and generosity with one another? Dr. Gottman’s wife and research partner, Dr. Julie Gottman, reflected to Esfahni Smith that the highly satisfied couples looked for opportunities to express their appreciation for their partner or express respect. The distressed couples, on the other hand, did not give their partners ‘the benefit of the doubt’: they focused on where their partner was failing and expressed criticism.
Practicing kindness and generosity does not necessarily come naturally in relationships. It may be tempting for couples to focus on the their partner’s short-comings, or ignore their partner due to feeling frustrated or over-whelmed. Individuals in relationships may feel justified in their anger or disappointment with their partner and may feel that the most effective method in coping with those feelings is to express them directly (through criticism) or indirectly (through passive aggression, such as sarcasm or ‘the silent-treatment’).
However, what Dr. Gottman’s research indicates is that there is a clear benefit to marital satisfaction when individuals intentionally practice responding to their spouse with positive regard.
In other words, focus on the good.
Chances are, there is something that your partner does that you appreciate. Did she plan a family vacation? Did he remember to pay the bills on time? One commonly heard refrain in couples counseling is that couples feel that their partners “already know” how they feel. But, do they really?
A common communication error in romantic relationships is assuming that one’s partner can mind-read: “I shouldn’t have to tell you how much I love and appreciate you – you should know that by now!” The truth is that individuals sometimes have the need to hear words of affirmation in order to establish security in their closest relationships. In Dr. Gary Chapman’s national bestseller, The 5 Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, Chapman writes, “Verbal compliments, or words of appreciation, are powerful communicators of love.” Although the practice of affirming your spouse may begin as a selfless effort, Chapman notes that “It is a fact, however, that when we receive affirming words we are far more likely to be motivated to reciprocate and do something our spouse desires.” As you might recognize, this cycle of affirmation and reciprocation would likely result in exponential increases in relationship satisfaction.
In addition, identifying and verbalizing your spouse’s valued traits may benefit your happiness by reminding yourself of the truth of your words. Again, this process of focusing on the positive and expressing gratitude about your partner may not come easily to couples at first. The first barrier to positive-thinking about our relationships lies in our perception of reality. Author Jane Porter writes in her FastCompany.com article, How to Rewire Your Brain for Happiness, that focusing on positive experiences is often a discipline because our brains are hard-wired to focus on negativity as a protective mechanism. “Realistic thinking means noticing the good things that happen to us as they occur and letting ourselves experience them.”
Once individuals train their brain to focus on the positive elements of their relationships, they may increase their marital satisfaction further when they verbalize their appreciation to their spouse. Porter cites the reflections of neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: “The brain is old-school,” says Hanson. “It’s like a cassette recorder. You record the song by playing it.” When individuals verbalize their positive feelings for their spouse, the information moves from short-term to long-term memory domains in the brain, and the result is potential for increased marital satisfaction.
So, what helps marriages thrive?
Kindness and generosity. Seeking the good in your partner and expressing your appreciation. In short, don’t stop seducing your spouse.
Complimenting, encouraging, attending to each other’s needs, and verbalizing respect are common in the early stages of relationships when couples experience a twitterpated excitement for one another. However, as time passes, couples may become complacent and forgo opportunities to strengthen their marriage through expressions of kindness and generosity. The adrenaline-surge provided by new relationships may energize investment into their relationship, and as the ordinary, simplified, or routine patterns of relationship set in, kind and generous practices may wane in their frequency.
Needless to say, the pattern of ignoring your partner’s positive traits and fixating on their faults is problematic for sustaining marital satisfaction. In fact, according to Dr. Gottman couples who have a ratio of fewer than five positive interactions for every negative interaction are likely to later get divorced.
Will intentional, frequent practices of kindness and generosity transform your relationship into a happy marriage? According to today’s research, the answer is ‘perhaps’. And this may be easier said than done.
To support your practices of kindness and generosity in your marriage, I have compiled a short list of examples of how you may enact these practices in your current relationship:
- Focus on the characteristics that led you to fall in love with your partner. Was she a great listener? Did he have excellent work ethic? Compliment your spouse and express your appreciation for these traits.
- Consider your spouse’s ability to provide for your family through work or household contributions. Did she work overtime to help cover the cost of Christmas gifts? Did he do the dishes? Affirm their hard work and sacrifice, no matter how small.
- Identify one way that you could lessen your partner’s stress. Would he be soothed by a homemade meal? Would she feel relaxed by decompressing with a good book at the end of a long day? Seek ways to give your partner a hard-earned break to show that you care.
How are you planning on demonstrating kindness and generosity in your relationship in the next few weeks? I’d love to hear your ideas!
* 41% of first marriages, 60% of second marriages, and 73% of third marriages end in divorce (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2006).
** In addition to the 50% who get divorced, 10-15% separate, and 7% more are “chronically unhappy” (The Science of Happily Ever After: The Science of Enduring Love by Ty Tashiro)