The Science Behind a Great Marriage

Everyone knows successful marriages take work but wouldn't it be great if we could uncover a secret formula to marital bliss? It turns out, researchers have done just that! Read on to discover small yet powerful ways to improve your marriage.

Your "how-we-met" story speaks volumes.
Next time someone at a dinner party asks, "How did you two meet?" pay attention to how you respond. Your answer can predict whether your marriage will make it, says John Gottman, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Washington, Seattle's Family Research Laboratory (aka "The Love Lab").

Gottman took oral histories from 52 couples married an average of five years, analyzed their stories and physiological responses, and checked back with the couples in three years. Their story predicted with 94 percent accuracy which couples would stay together. (The figure was 88 percent in a separate study in which Gottman followed newlyweds.) Happy couples spoke with laughter and nostalgia, even when recalling hard moments. Unhappy partners, on the other hand, remembered things more negatively.

If you or your spouse tells the story of your romance using sarcastic or critical words, it may be time to find out what's behind those emotions.

Go ahead, fight - but choose your words carefully.
You can tell a lot about the future of a marriage by the way a couple argues, says Gottman. He determined four negative emotions used in arguments that proved particularly toxic on the relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Conversely, happy and secure couples used positive behaviors to diffuse the tension, such as humor, affection, and acknowledgement of their partner's point of view. Secure couples used five times more positive behaviors in their arguments than negative ones.

Gottman concluded that all married couples can benefit from building and maintaining their friendship with each other so they can assume the best of their partner when times are tough. He also encourages spouses to recognize that words can either build up or break down a marriage.

Next time you get into a tiff, you may want to think twice about needing to win the battle.

Related: Save Your Marriage - By Acting Divorced

When marital bliss fades, seek out novelty.
You're in for a major letdown if you bought into the myth that marriage will make you happy. The typical happiness boost experienced by newlyweds fades after roughly two years, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside; and author of The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn't, What Shouldn't Make You Happy, but Does.

Fortunately, Lyubomirsky also discovered that couples can adapt, augmenting long-term satisfaction and beating marriage boredom. First, deepen your appreciation for the positive changes in your life, including your spouse and marriage, because appreciation feeds happiness and prevents you from taking him (or it) for granted. Next, build variety into your marriage, for science shows that experiencing new and exciting things as a couple increases both relationship satisfaction and passionate love.

"It doesn't have to be bungee jumping," says Lyubomirsky. "It could be meeting new people, going out dancing, learning a foreign language, or volunteering together - anything you don't normally do delivers this boost."

Your generosity will reap huge rewards.
Generosity is one of the chief predictors of marital success and a top preventer of divorce, according to The University of Virginia's National Marriage Project. Researchers found that husbands and wives who scored high on the generosity scale - defined as "the virtue of giving good things to [one's spouse] freely and abundantly" - were also happier in their marriages. Those who scored above average in terms of generosity were more than three times as likely to report they were "very happy" in their marriage compared with those who were not generous.

But before you fork over money for that cashmere sweater or NBA tickets your spouse has been eyeing, consider that the study's perspective on generosity encompassed everything from doing small acts of service for your partner (making coffee in the morning) to expressing affection and forgiving freely. In other words, frequent acts of generosity are worth much more than you'll ever pay for them.

Related: Marriage Myths You Shouldn't Believe

Turns out, you do marry the whole family.
Research confirms that your relationship with your in-laws affects marital health and longevity. Couples had a 20 percent less chance of divorcing if the husbands reported having a very close relationship to his in-laws, says Terri Orbuch, a professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. However, when wives felt this way, the reverse held true: Couples had a 20 percent higher divorce risk.

Orbuch believes these findings point back to a women's relational nature. "When a husband says, 'Your family is important to me,' [the wife] feels supported and validated." On the other hand, a woman who's striving for acceptance by her husband's family may have a harder time setting up healthy boundaries with her in-laws, which can add stress to the marriage.

Orbuch reminds couples to set realistic expectations when it comes to in-laws. "Don't share information about your marriage with them. And remember that when your in-laws say something that sounds critical, it says a lot about them and very little about you."

Take time to connect.
Spouses who intimately know and understand their partners are more happily married, says Orbuch, who studied 343 couple over 26 years. In annual interviews, 98 percent of happily married spouses said they "intimately" know their partner, meaning they know his or her best friends, dreams, concerns, and inner conflicts. Fifty percent of happy spouses said they reveal intimate details to their partners "often," compared with 19 percent of unhappy spouses.

"When partners know and have a deep understanding of their spouses, that couple is more likely to stay together over time," says Orbuch. She suggests practicing the 10-minute rule: "At least 10 minutes a day, talk to your partner about something other than work, family, chores, or the relationship. Some couples think they're communicating when they're just talking about maintenance of the household."

A shared faith strengthens your bond.
Couples who follow common spiritual practices are happier in their marriages and less likely to split up, according to the National Marriage Project study of 1,630 couples. Those who shared religious attendance were three percent more likely to describe themselves as "very happy" in the marriage and three percent less likely to separate or divorce. This grew to 26 percent and 6 percent, respectively, for couples who said God was "at the center of our marriage." The results placed spirituality among the highest predictors of marital stability and happiness, especially for husbands.

W. Bradley Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, noted in his 2011 State of Our Unions report that sharing religious practices gives a couple's marriage "transcendent significance and the support of a community of family and friends who take one's marriage seriously."

Related: 10 Ways to Spice Up Your Relationship

Marriage gets better with age (at least for wives).
Psychologists from the University of California, Berkeley's Institute of Personality and Social Research tracked the marital satisfaction of approximately 100 women for 18 years, from their 40s into their early 60s. Satisfaction increased for all women as they aged, although those who became empty nesters reported the highest satisfaction. Even more interesting, the empty nesters did not spend more time with their partners, but said the quality of it had improved.

Researchers concluded that women in the throes of parenting may need to "hang in there" when marriages are stressful and remember to carve out couple-time as much as possible through date nights and weekends away. "Don't wait until your kids leave home to schedule quality time with your partner," says Oliver John, co-author of the paper and psychology professor at UC Berkeley. As for husbands, a study on men's perspective on aging and marriage is currently in the works.

What's your secret to a successful marriage? Let me know in the comments!

--by Esther Chapman

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