“For better or for worse.” We all know this familiar phrase from the traditional wedding ceremony. But what does it mean in the everyday life of a married couple?
It’s easy to understand the “for worse” part of the phrase. “For worse” solemnly reminds couples to be supportive of each other in times of adversity. Couples can help each other by providing a safe harbor in times of crisis and a comforting shoulder to lean on when little disappointments and defeats make daily life difficult.
But what exactly does it mean to be there for your spouse in times of “for better?” Let’s say one member of a couple is offered a potentially rewarding work opportunity. Would support from the other spouse make a difference in whether their partner pursued that opportunity? How could the other spouse best offer such support? And how would support affect the well-being of the couple in the long run, both together and separately?
A team of researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University tackled these questions in a recent study. One hundred and sixty-three married, heterosexual couples participated. Researchers randomly assigned roles to each member of a couple. One spouse was given the role of “decision-maker;” the other spouse assumed the role of “support-provider.” Seventy-eight females and 85 males were slotted into the decision-maker role.
Researchers then gave the decision-makers a choice: (1) Complete a simple puzzle or (2) Compete for a prize (worth about $200) by giving a speech which would be rated by a group of judges. The couples were given five minutes to make a decision. As each couple separately debated the choice, the researchers unobtrusively videotaped their dialogue. Questionnaires were also used to determine why the decision-maker did or didn't embrace the opportunity offered by researchers.
Not surprisingly, those with encouraging spouses more often decided to take on the more difficult, but potentially more rewarding challenge of the speech than those whose spouses were less supportive. Specific behaviors that proved encouraging to the decision-maker were:
It was surprising to me, however, that when the researchers interviewed couples 6 months after this simple intervention, those who had accepted the speaking challenge reported more personal growth and happiness, more feelings of being talented and competent, and better relationship strength than those who didn't choose the speaking opportunity.
Interestingly, the "decision-makers" who chose the speaking activity did not actually have to give speeches. Their names were entered into a random drawing for the prizes. So it was the process of giving and receiving support that was the key to the changes that occurred.
The results of the study hint at the kind of partner support that may nourish long-lasting relationships: Encouragement to take on personal growth challenges. As described above, partner support for growth opportunities also predicted better mental health for the individual decision-maker—a stronger sense of meaning, more happiness, and increased positive self-regard, for example. As Dr. Brooke C. Feeney, lead author of the study, professor of psychology, and director of the CMU Relationships Lab, stated, "We found support for the idea that the choices people make at these specific decision points—such as pursuing a work opportunity or seeking out new friends—matter a lot for their long-term well-being."
These results are in line with the theories and research of other relationship experts, such as psychologist Arthur Aron. Aron contends that “self-expansion,” the desire to grow and change, is a major factor in boosting a couple’s level of commitment. As described more fully here, those who see their partners as a source of exciting experiences, a support for becoming a better person, or a resource to expand their capabilities is more likely to feel satisfied and committed to their relationship. (Situations in which a partner “pushes” the other person to become the best he or she can be are a different story, and one that I find somewhat alarming. These cases are described intriguingly here in a recent article by psychologist Eli Finkel.)
In a nutshell, this study shows that being a catalyst for the personal growth of one’s partner helps a marriage relationship thrive. It turns out that if your “better half” encourages you to become a better person, your marriage will be better off for it.
© Meg Selig, 2017. All rights reserved.
Thanks to Dr. Brooke C. Feeney for her kindness in sending me a copy of the paper, "Predicting the Pursuit and Support of Challenging Life Opportunities,” published in the Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin.
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Feeney, B.C., Van Vleet, M., Jacubiak, B.K., Tomlinson, J.M. “Predicting the Pursuit and Support of Challenging Life Opportunities.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43 (8), pp. 1171 - 1187, 6-8-2017.
"Supportive relationships linked to willingness to pursue opportunities," Science Daily, 8-11-2017.
Selig, M. “Can the ‘Novelty Habit’ Boost a Couple’s Commitment?” psychologytoday.com
Finkel, E.J. “How to Fix the Person You Love,” New York Times.