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How to Make Relationship Happiness Last

Reappraising conflict from a third-party perspective may preserve happiness.

Key points

  • More than half of people who report being “very happy” with their marriage are also very happy with life overall.
  • The relationship quality of a married couple tends to decline over time.
  • Thinking about conflict from a third-party perspective could stop the decline in relationship quality for married couples, new findings suggest.

You’ve likely heard the saying, “Happy wife, happy life” or “Happy spouse, happy house.” But are these popular sayings actually supported by research?

The short answer is likely yes, as several studies link the quality of a couple’s marriage to each partner’s individual happiness. In fact, psychologist Eli Finkel shared survey findings that show 57 percent of people who say they are “very happy” in their marriage also say they are very happy with their life overall—whereas only 10 percent of people who say they are just “pretty happy” in their marriage say they are very happy with their life overall.

Studies also suggest being happily married may be good for your health. Researchers Kathleen King and Harry Reis followed the recovery of patients who had undergone a coronary artery bypass graft. They found that patients who were married, rather than single, were 2.5 times more likely to still be alive 15 years after their surgery. And patients who said they were happily married were 3.2 times more likely to be alive 15 years after surgery.

The quality of one’s marriage, therefore, appears to be related to being happy and healthy. The bad news, however, is that marriage quality tends to decline over time.

It is possible that some couples might stay as happy as they were on their wedding day or even become happier over time. But on average, marital quality tends to decrease throughout one’s marriage. Many large-scale and longitudinal studies, which follow married couples for years, show a clear and consistent downward trend in marital quality over time.

But before you swear off marriage, or give the most depressing wedding speech of all time, a research study by Eli Finkel, Erica Slotter, Laura Luchies, Gregory Walton, and James Gross has revealed one way to potentially preserve relationship quality. When couples argue or experience conflict, as they inevitably will, they can stop downward spirals by thinking about the conflict from a third-party perspective.

How to Think Differently About Conflict

One reason why relationship quality dips over time is negative-affect reciprocity—when one partner is upset or in a bad mood, their partner tends to respond with an equally bad (or even worse) mood, which usually escalates the conflict. Responding to a partner’s accusation with criticism or contempt, for instance, triggers a downward spiral of negativity that can be difficult for couples to break.

One tip to stop the slide of declining relationship quality is for couples to use emotional reappraisal, or reinterpret the conflict in a way that makes them feel less angry and distressed. Instead of thinking of the conflict from a first-person perspective, emotional reappraisal requires couples to look at conflict from a third-party perspective, as an outsider would. How was that person (me) wronged by their partner?

To determine whether emotional reappraisal can preserve relationship quality over time, Finkel and colleagues followed 120 heterosexual married couples for two years. Every four months, the researchers measured a couple’s relationship quality by asking about their relationship satisfaction and feelings of love, intimacy, trust, passion, and commitment. After a year, married couples experienced a robust decrease in relationship quality, on average—thus replicating previous research that showed decreases in married couples’ satisfaction over time.

Then, the researchers implemented an emotional reappraisal intervention. For the next year, half of the couples were asked to write about any conflict they experienced in their marriage from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved. Specifically, they wrote how this person might think about the disagreement and how he or she could find any good that could come from it. Participants in this condition were also asked to try their best over the next year to always take this third-party perspective, especially when they experience conflict with their partner.

The other half of the participants were in the control condition. They received regular check-ins from the researchers but were not asked to think any differently about the conflict they experienced in their marriage.

After the second year, married couples in the control condition continued to show the same significant decreases in relationship quality over time. However, married couples in the emotional reappraisal condition stopped declining in relationship quality. Thinking about conflict from a third-party perspective did not make them happier in their relationship, but it did appear to stop the normative decreases in relationship quality that most married couples experience.

These findings are promising because an emotional reappraisal intervention is relatively easy for couples to implement. Simply thinking about conflict from the perspective of a neutral third party appears to make a meaningful difference in couples’ marriages. It might not increase their relationship quality—but if couples reappraise conflict early and often, their marital bliss may continue long after the honeymoon.

References

Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). A brief intervention to promote conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time. Psychological Science, 24(8), 1595-1601.

King, K. B. & Reis, H. T. (2012). Marriage and long-term survival after coronary artery bypass grafting. Health Psychology, 31, 55-62.

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