The secrets of marital bliss

Good Health
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
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Are there scientific reasons for why some couples live happily ever after while others don't? By Patricia Flokis.

We all expect counsellors to have an opinion on what makes a happy marriage, and we've all been given well-meaning advice from our family and friends, but are we looking for guidance in all the wrong places? Relationship scientists think so.

If a theory or a hunch about love isn't backed up with the relevant research, they argue, it isn't safe enough for couple consumption. So if the secrets to a strong marriage are to be found in scientific studies, which ones should we be looking at?

The positive ones, say the experts. In recent times, many relationship scientists have preferred to investigate what couples are doing right rather than focusing on how they manage bad times. Always cheering your partner on, seeking novel ways to grow together and appreciating the small stuff are some of their latest findings. How can you apply their conclusions to your marriage? Read on to find out.

Look up to your partner
You've always been told that no partner is perfect, but realists are not necessarily happier in their marriages, says Dr Sandra Murray, a professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo.

Her team followed 222 newlywed couples over three years, asking each partner to describe themselves and their spouses in detail. The researchers then ranked how idealistic and, in turn, how realistic their perceptions turned out to be. They found that people who were "unrealistically idealistic" about their partner — those who saw them as more sporty or funny, for example, than what they actually were — were happier with their marriages. "People who initially idealised their partner highly experienced no declines in satisfaction," concluded Murray.

Does everlasting marital happiness involve distorting the way you see your partner? It's more likely a case of choosing to see your partner as ideal for you, and then celebrating his good points rather than focusing on his shortcomings. "It makes sense that the more optimistic you are, the more likely you are to see your partner in a positive light and therefore the happier you're going to be together," says Anne Hollonds, psychologist and chief executive of Relationships Australia. "Also, if you're able to be so enthusiastic about your partner, it indicates that you haven't allowed the petty irritations of everyday life to take the gloss off your relationship."

Practise 'everyday gratitude'
Being grateful for those little things your partner does for you every day can give your marriage a boost that lingers on, according to research at the University of North Carolina.

In the study, couples were asked to record how grateful they felt towards their partners on a daily basis. Not only did participants feel a greater connection to their partners on the days when they felt more gratitude towards them, but they reported more relationship satisfaction the next day, too.

"Gratitude helps to remind an individual of his or her feelings toward the partner and inspire mutual responsiveness, which serves to increase the bond between the couple,” says study author Dr Sara Algoe. In addition, “gratitude may help turn 'ordinary' moments into opportunities for relationship growth.”

Any benefit is compromised, though, if a partner feels that they need to return the favour. A sense of 'indebtedness' might help the relationship tick along, Algoe reasons, but it won't deepen it.

"It's not only important to be conscious of your gratitude, but you need to take time out to express it to your partner," says Hollonds. "Don't assume they know how appreciative you really are." And pay it back with your own thoughtful deeds, without strings attached, of course.

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