What Increases Marriage Satisfaction?

What recent marriage research found surprised me greatly....yet looks to be true

Posted Mar 13, 2012

Frustration and irritation may be part of a perfect marriage.

Is a perfect marriage, based on perfect love, one in which both spouses "live happily ever after?"   Not so for either for forthright and funny journalist Elizabeth Weil, author of the newly released marriage-upgrade saga No Cheating, No Dying.  Or are there are better ways to be sure that a relationship lasts?
better marriage, marriage betterment, happily ever after

No Cheating, No Dying by Elizabeth Weil

According to a recent marriage study, Weil's conclusion is correct.  "Happily ever after' is not totally deisrable!

Weil's book.

The subtitle of Weil's engaging and impressively enlightening book sums up her project: "I had a good marriage. Then I tried to make it better." This posting is the first in a series in which I focus on the various paths Elizabeth and her husband Dan took in their quest, the bumps they encountered, and the benefits they gained.

Perfection in fact sounded initially to Weil like a tempting goal. As she writes at the outset of her book, "I assumed that better would look like a Photoshopped version of good: essentially unchanged, unsightly elements gone."

Interestingly, after a year of experimentation with various marriage improvement options meant to insure that their marriage was in healthy condition Weil concluded, "I had a good marriage before I spent a year improving it, and I have a good marriage now." She then adds, "In fact, my marriage is better, truly better. Although not in the ways I'd expected..."

What did their year of marriage betterment change for Elizabeth and Dan, and how did these changes make a difference?

That's what Elizabeth narrates so engagingly in her book.  

Through their patchwork of marriage therapies and marriage ed courses, Elizabeth, already a happy person, became even happier, with herself and with Dan.  

In part, movement from wishful thinking to whimsical acceptance was a factor.  Elements about her husband that she previously would have been delighted to "Photoshop out" began to look to her like part of his charm.  

In addition, Dan and Elizabeth together became a more effective shared-problem-solving partnership, more skillful especially at talking over tough issues that had been their perpetual sources of disagreement and irritation.  Like all couples, Dan and Liz had several on-going frustrating differences.  Dan's displeasure with spending most of their family weekend time lounging at Liz's parents' place was a particularly chronic hot spot for them.  With their differences resolved, what had been on-going sources of friction no longer created sparks.

The research.

Interestingly, a new study by Harvard researchers Cohen, Schulz, Weiss and Waldinger (Journal of Family Psychology, Feb. 27, 2012) confirmed the vital importance of these two marriage factors--a happy wife and strong partnership communication when the husband is feeling upset. Two of the study's conclusions were that:

1) The old saying "happy wife, happy life" seems to be true. Husbands do tend to feel happier with their marriage when they see that their wives are happy.

In fact, as I have observed again and again in my clinical practice and wrote about in a PT posting on giving good vibes, the more positive emotions expressed amongst family members, the more everyone ends up feeling happy. It's kind of a "the rich get richer" phenomenon.

When a wife tells her husband via smiles, verbalized appreciation, agreement with things he says, sexual enjoyment, affection of all types, interest in his life, enjoyment of time and activities with him, etc. that she likes him, he feels happy. He's also likely to return the positive vibes, enhancing her happiness. Meanwhile their children grow happily in the sunshine of parental warmth.

While spouses generally want to be happy, the impact of this factor is statistically stronger for men. Seeing that their wife is happy seems engenders particularly strong feelings of marriage satisfaction.

2) For wives, marriage satisfaction is especially enhanced when the husband is upset (!), provided that he opens up and talks in a non-blaming constructive way about his distress (and, I would add, that she has strong listening skills).

Whether his distress comes from a reaction to something his wife has done or from elsewhere, being able to talk in a mutually respectful, open, problem-solving way about the problems leads to a gratifyingly intimate feeling, especially for the wife.

In other words, "perfect" in marriage does not require living-happy-ever-after in la-la land. Rather, it takes being able to talk together copperatively about situations that have created negative feelings. As I explain in my book From Conflict to Resolution, a couple's ability to partner in the movement from conflict to resolution sustains feelings of personal well-being and mutual goodwill.

Some might call it emotional intimacy. Whatever the label, for women especially, being able to talk together about what upsets her spouse most significantly enhances her sense of marital satisfaction.  What an irony, that a spouse who feels troubled and shares what troubles him brings forth increases in marriage satisfaction for the wife!  

How do these somewhat surprising research findings pertain to the enhancement of Liz and Dan's marriage?

Happy wife: The marriage therapy components of their year of marriage betterment freed Liz from impediments to relaxed satisfaction with herself, and to being able to enjoy Dan more wholeheartedly. Feeling less critical opens people to being able to enjoy more happiness. Dan as well as Liz herself were happiness beneficiaries of this attitude shift.

Troubled husband who talks about his concerns: The marriage education components of their better marriage project helped both Liz and Dan become more open and effective listeners, and therefore more able to find win-win solutions to their differences.

While people often equate "communication" with talking, for Liz and Dan the key skill-upgrades that made the biggest difference in their marriage were increases in their abilities to genuinely hear each other's concerns.

When your spouse seems to want something different from what you want, it can be tempting to negate or dismiss their comments.  Liz had fallen into that trap vis a vis spending weekends at her parents' place.  Genuinely seeking to understand someone else's concerns in these situations takes highest-level listening skills.  Until she began genuinely hearing, truly taking seriously her husband's concerns, Liz had been stalemated with regard to creating more mutually gratifying weekend routines.

In sum

Long ago a therapy client of mine once said that she loved listening back to the tapes (now CD's) that I made of each of her therapy sessions. At the same time, she observed insightfully, "I would probably learn a lot from listening to anyone's tapes. Everyone shares so much when it comes to what makes us happy or upset." (pls continue on p.2)

better marriage, marriage betterment, happily ever after

No Cheating, No Dying by Elizabeth Weil

Similarly, reading Weil's self-revealing No Cheating No Dying offers a learning opportunity to any folks who want, if not perfect love, at least the very best and most loving marriage they can build. As Weil insightfully writes, "I'd bound myself to this person, agreed to run through life joined, as in a three-legged race."  Weil's discoveries of what enhances joy in this complex and hopefully long-lasting project of marriage make thoroughly nourishing reading.

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Susan Heitler, Ph.D. is a Denver clinical psychologist who specializes in marriage therapy.  In addition she is author of The Power of Two book and workbook and the online marriage education program PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.  

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