As much as we want to think that our happy relationships will stay happy, the evidence tends to point otherwise. But are and low satisfaction the fated outcomes for all relationships? What can you do to safeguard your own relationship so that it thrives not just in the short-run but well beyond?
The bad news: Most couples experience declines in satisfaction. One of the first studies to show this trend looked at data from 93 couples over the first 10 years of their marriages (Kurdek, 1999). Critical time points appear to be in the first year of marriage, when satisfaction drops sharply, and then around year eight, when there appears to be another accelerated reduction in satisfaction. Compared to couples without children, those with children tend to experience stronger declines; this difference is consistent in more recent research (e.g., Meyer et al., 2016).*
The overall picture for most couples is captured in the figure below, depicting self-reported satisfaction by year of marriage, separately for men and women, from Kurdek's research.
These trends are distressing, given the central role that our romantic relationships play in our lives. But it needn't be the trajectory for every couple. What can you do to buck the trend and support your own relationship's happiness?
1. Act like you're still dating. Evidence suggests that affectionate behaviors decline from dating to marriage (Huston et al., 2001), yet the benefits of affectionate behaviors are well-documented, for both an individual and a couple (Jakubiak & Feeny, 2017). With life throwing all sorts of responsibilities at you as the months and years go by, it might be easy to let some things slide, but the potential benefits of regularly expressing your affection to your partner suggest it's worth making a priority.
2. Mentally associate your partner with the positive, not the negative. In a clever recent study, McNulty and colleagues (2017) had participants view images of their partners on a computer regularly over a period of weeks. Those who viewed partner images that were embedded among unrelated positive (versus neutral) stimuli later had more positive automatic partner associations, which predicted later satisfaction. The takeaway: What are your quick, automatic attitudes towards your partner? If you can construct them as positive by building these associations, you may be better off in the long run.
3. Find and feel gratitude. Research suggests that people who feel and express their gratitude tend to have higher marital satisfaction and so do their partners (Gordon et al., 2011). This idea has ready applications for long-standing relationships. The humbling act of being grateful can be practiced, and may create a daily resistance to declines in marital satisfaction.
4. Take an "approach" orientation toward your relationship. New research into motivational models of relationship maintenance suggests that people who are approach oriented, rather than avoidant oriented, set themselves up for success (Weigel, Weiser, & Lalasz, 2017). People who use approach goals try to achieve desired outcomes, rather than avoid undesirable ones. Taking approach goals in a relationship is linked to engaging in more constructive behaviors — openness, assurances, positivity — and these behaviors appear to ward off dissatisfaction and disillusionment.
5. Recognize external pressures. Relationships don't operate in a vacuum. The stresses that affect us outside of our relationships influence the quality of our relationships (Neff & Karney, 2004). This might be a familiar story to you: When his or her work stress kicks up, your partner has less energy for spending quality time with you, engages in less affection, or is moody and distracted. If we recognize the source of these stressors — i.e., it's not me, it's work — then we might be able to feel more compassionate and make more positive attributions about our partner's behaviors.
In sum: Much of the work we can do to safeguard our relationships has to do with our attitudes toward our partner, which translate into relationship maintenance behaviors. How do we explain our partner's actions? Are we quick to blame, or do we give the benefit of the doubt and see our partners favorably? Resisting a decline in satisfaction and disillusionment is also buttressed by some grounding in reality: Inflated, unrealistic expectations in our mind can create a large discrepancy between what we expect and what we experience.
* Evidence suggests that there's a "golden age of parenting" — parents report the greatest relationship satisfaction when their children are between 8 and 12.
Kurdek, L. A. (1999). The nature and predictors of the trajectory of change in marital quality for husbands and wives over the first 10 years of marriage. Developmental Psychology, 35, 1283-1296.
Meyer, D., Robinson, B., Cohn, A., Gildenblatt, L., & Barkley, S. (2016). The Possible trajectory of relationship satisfaction across the longevity of a romantic partnership: Is there a golden age of parenting?. The Family Journal, 24, 344-350.
Huston, T. L., Caughlin, J. P., Houts, R. M., Smith, S. E., & George, L. J. (2001). The connubial crucible: Newlywed years as predictors of marital delight, distress, and divorce. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 237-252.
McNulty, J. K., Olson, M. A., Jones, R. E., & Acosta, L. M. (2017). Automatic associations between one's partner and one's affect as the proximal mechanism of change in relationship satisfaction: Evidence from evaluative conditioning. Psychological Science, Advanced online Publication.
Weigel, D. J., Weiser, D. A., & Lalasz, C. B. (2017). Testing a motivational model of relationship maintenance: The role of approach and avoidance relationship goals. Western Journal of Communication, 81, 341-361.
Jakubiak, B. K., & Feeney, B. C. (2017). Affectionate touch to promote relational, psychological, and physical well-being in adulthood: A theoretical model and review of the research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(3), 228-252.
Gordon, C. L., Arnette, R. A., & Smith, R. E. (2011). Have you thanked your spouse today?: Felt and expressed gratitude among married couples. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(3), 339-343.