The Secret Sauce That Sets Happy Couples Apart

And why new neuroscience research shows their brains are more satisfied.

Posted Sep 05, 2020

Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash
The secret sauce that happy, long-lasting couples possess.
Source: Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash

Conflict is a part of any relationship even for the happiest couples with long histories. Typical issues include money, sex, children, in-laws, and intimacy. The pandemic has added another layer of tension to many couple relationships.

It might sound conflicting (no pun intended), but a long-standing body of marital research shows that couples who argue are more likely to stay together than couples who avoid facing issues. And two new studies reveal the secret sauce: it’s the manner in which happy couples argue and under what conditions that makes them different from other couples.

How Couples Argue

A study published in Family Process showed that it’s the way happy couples argue that makes a difference. Researchers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville observed 121 couples split into two groups—married nine years and 42 years—who described themselves as happily married. The sample consisted mainly of white, heterosexual, educated couples, 57 of whom were in their mid-to-late 30s and 64 were in their early 70s. Couples ranked their most and least serious issues. Intimacy, leisure, household, communication, and money were the most serious, as well as health for the older couples; couples in both samples ranked jealousy, religion, and family as the least serious.

When researchers observed couples discussing marital problems, happy couples took a solution-oriented approach to conflict which showed up in the topics they chose to discuss. All couples focused on issues with clearer solutions, such as the distribution of household labor and how to spend leisure time. Couples rarely chose to argue about issues that were more difficult to resolve.

Focusing first on more solvable problems may be an effective way to build up both partners’ sense of security in the relationship. According to lead author Dr. Amy Rauer, this strategic decision may be one of the keys to their marital success. "Focusing on the perpetual, more-difficult-to-solve problems may undermine partners' confidence in the relationship," Rauer said. "If couples feel that they can work together to resolve their issues, it may give them the confidence to move on to tackling the more difficult issues."

In the final analysis, the secret sauce for happy couples is when each party chooses their battles. Focusing on issues that are more difficult to resolve might lead to less marital happiness or the dissolution of the relationship, especially if couples haven’t banked previous successes solving other marital issues." Being able to successfully differentiate between issues that need to be resolved versus those that can be laid aside for now may be one of the keys to a long-lasting, happy relationship,” Rauer said.

Third Party Mediation

A study conducted by scientists from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and published in the September 2020 issue of the journal Cortex found that when couples argue, mediation improves the outcome of the confrontation. The study also showed that mediation is linked to heightened activity in key regions of the brain belonging to the reward circuit.

The researchers randomly assigned 36 heterosexual romantic couples to a mediated or non-mediated conflict discussion. Prior to and following the sessions in which the two partners argued, the participants received a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Couples who received active mediation reported higher satisfaction than non-mediated couples at the end of the conflict. Heightened activation in a key region in the brain's reward circuit (the nucleus accumbens) also was identified in the mediation group compared to the control group.

Before coming to UNIGE, participants had to check off a list of 15 standard subjects (in-laws, sexuality, finances, household chores, time spent together, etc.) which most often fueled conflict with their partner. The researchers asked participants to begin a discussion about one of the conflicting topics. The one-hour session was accompanied by a professional mediator who mediated the dispute in half of the cases. In the other half, the mediator remained passive. Participants completed a questionnaire before and after their argument to measure their emotional state. In each couple, one member's brain activity was measured before and after the dispute while they were shown images of their romantic partner or images of an unknown person.

Data from the questionnaires indicated that couples who benefited from active mediation were better at resolving conflicts, were more satisfied with the content and progress of the discussion, and had fewer residual disagreements. When comparing couples who received active mediation with those who did not, the researchers found that the former tended to have greater activation in the nucleus accumbens after the conflict. Moreover, the participants who felt the most satisfied after the resolution of the conflict also had the highest nucleus accumbens activation when looking at their romantic partner compared to an unknown person.

"We know from numerous studies that thinking about romantic love and your romantic partner activates the so-called reward circuit in the brain, which is associated with feelings of pleasure and motivation," said Olga Klimecki, a researcher at the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences (CISA) and in UNIGE's Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences. "Our results suggest, for the first time, that third-party mediation has a significant and positive impact on the way couples argue, both behaviorally and neurally," concludes Klimecki.

According to the researchers, this is the first time a controlled, randomized study has succeeded in demonstrating the advantages of mediation for couple conflicts and identifying a related biological signature.

Facebook image: Maja Argakijeva/Shutterstock

References

Halima Rafi, H. et al. (2020). Impact of couple conflict and mediation on how romantic partners are seen: An fMRI study. Cortex, 2020; 130: 302-317. DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2020.04.036

Rauer, A., et al. (2019). What are the marital problems of happy couples? A multimethod, two‐sample investigation. Family Process, 2019; DOI: 10.1111/famp.12483

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