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Marital Satisfaction
6 Signs of a Happy Marriage, According to Science
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If, like me, you *occasionally* read Cosmo, you’ve probably taken a couple of “Is He Into You?” quizzes. Of course, these quizzes become significantly less useful if you’ve been with your partner over a decade.  Sure, my spouse texts me multiple times a day… about our grocery list.

However, even couples past the “Is He Into You?” stage can be curious about the health of their marriage. Thankfully, researchers have spent decades studying the predictors of loving marriages.

Science provides some useful (and surprising!) information about whether your marriage is currently happy — and how to make it happier.

6 Signs You Are Happily Married

Here's how to tell if you're happily married and, if not, how to get there with your partner.

1. You Feel Physically and Emotionally Safe with Your Partner

I wish this point was a given, but the reality is that intimate partner violence (IPV) is tragically common. According to the CDC, “Nearly one in for women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime."

IPV includes more than just physical violence. Sexual violence, stalking, and psychological aggression are also forms of IPV. People of all races, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, income levels, sexual orientations and gender identities are at risk of experiencing IPV.

If you feel unsafe in your relationship, there can be many factors that make it difficult to ask for help. These can include fear of retaliatory violence, potential legal and financial consequences, and stigma.

It’s important to know that there are confidential, supportive resources out there. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is completely anonymous, and their trained staff can talk with you 24 hours a day. You can call 1-800-799-7233 or chat with someone online if that’s more comfortable for you. 

2. You Know That Stress and Big Life Transitions Can Negatively Impact Your Relationship

Yes, there are absolutely things happy couples do differently from unhappy couples (and we’ll talk about some of them below). However, our environments strongly impact our behaviors… and our long-term partnerships. Life events and stressors such as financial strain and having a baby often make people less satisfied in their marriages.

Acknowledging that the outside environment impacts marriage is important for two big reasons.

  1. Saying, “Honey, I think we might be arguing more because we’re adjusting to having a baby,” is much less likely to make your partner defensive than, “Honey, I think we’re arguing more because you’re a jerk.” In fact, as the mother of a 15-month-old, I can personally attest that this is true!
  2. This means that there are things we can do as a society to support stable, happy marriages. For example, providing both moms and dads with paid parental leave predicts better outcomes for both children and couples.

3. You Handle Conflicts Constructively

A lot of research on marriage satisfaction has focused on how couples handle disagreements. A popular method of studying conflict behaviors is to videotape couples discussing a high conflict area in their marriage. (I’m sending gratitude to all the couples who volunteered their weekends to argue on camera for science.)

Unhappy couples demonstrate a pretty consistent pattern of behavior during these interactions. Let’s make up an imaginary couple (Harry and Sally) to illustrate what happens. Harry says something negative, like, “You’re such a slob. You always throw your dirty socks on the floor.” Sally then does one of two things. She escalates the negativity (e.g., “Well, you’re a nag who nitpicks everything I do.”) or withdraws (e.g., clams up or says something completely irrelevant like, “It’s kind of hot outside for socks. I’d rather wear sandals.”).

Partners in unhappy relationships are also not as good at patching things up and ending the argument. For example, Harry might be thinking, “I know Sally’s dirty socks aren’t a huge deal, but they’re crazy-making when I’m already exhausted.” However, he says something like, “If you cared about how exhausted I am, you’d stop making messes all the time.” All Sally ends up hearing is Harry’s frustration. She completely misses his plea for her to hear how exhausted he is, so the argument keeps getting more intense.

Even if your relationship is not headed toward divorce, this conflict death spiral probably feels at least a little familiar.  There have certainly been times when I was so angry or tired that I criticized my husband more than necessary. I am also guilty of missing cues that he was trying to make up with me.

The good news is that conflict resolution is a skill you can practice and improve. Here are some ways to improve your conflict resolution skills:

  • An excellent book on this subject is Reconcilable Differences, Second Edition: Rebuild Your Relationship by Rediscovering the Partner You Love—Without Losing Yourself. Another good option is The Relationship Cure: A -Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships. Both are by researchers with decades of experience helping couples improve their partnerships.
  • If you’re pressed for time, this blog has some good, quick tips.
  • Another option is working with a couples therapist. A good therapist can help mediate conflicts, as well as provide coaching on how to handle conflicts more effectively.

4. You Feel Good About How You Split the Chores

The bottom line is that no one really enjoys doing dishes or laundry, but they have to get done anyway. Women continue to do significantly more housework than men, which can lead to feelings of anger and resentment. New parents can have particularly intense conflicts about chores, partly because babies create a lot more of them to do.

The first three months of my son’s life was definitely NOT the high point of my marriage. I can still remember my shock at how much there was to do around the house once our son was born. It seemed like we were constantly alternating between feeding him, changing his diaper, or rocking him to sleep. Things were further complicated by the fact that we live very far from family and were intensely sleep-deprived. Did I mention that I also went back to work full-time at three weeks postpartum? Looking back, I can see how hard my husband worked to take care of our son (and me!) during that time. However, I was so bleary-eyed, anxious, and exhausted it was hard not to feel resentful at times.

What helped most were the wise words of a friend who was an experienced parent. She reminded me that a strong marriage is not about everything being 50-50 all the time. Instead, it is about each person doing what they can in that particular moment. That means there will be times in any relationship where things will be 70-30 (or even 90-10). The key is for both partners to trust that they will not stay that way permanently.

Lo and behold, the science also backs this up.

Social psychologists have identified that people generally form two different kinds of relationships: exchange and communal relationships.

  1. Exchange relationships are the types of relationship you’re likely to have with your real estate agent or your Starbucks barista. They give you something (like your drip coffee), and you almost immediately give them something back (like money). Romantic relationships (hopefully) fall into the category of communal relationships.
  2. In communal relationships, you give your partner something because it makes them happy and don’t expect an immediate payback. However, you’re confident that your partner will help you and make you happy over the long-term. Not surprisingly, couples who believe their relationship follows more of a communal than exchange model are happier together.

5. You Have Regular and Satisfying Sex

There is no shortage of mommy blogs that will remind you that having sex is important to maintaining your relationship. Some of them have the decency to say, “but only have sex if you want to” as an afterthought. I find these blogs annoying, mostly because they ignore a giant chunk of the science behind sex and marital satisfaction.

Yes, people who have more sex tend to be happier, but please don’t run to your bedroom just yet. When couples started having sex more often because a researcher told them to, their happiness DECREASED. So, scheduling sexy time because bloggers (or even religious leaders and therapists) think it’s a great idea could backfire.

 A potentially more constructive approach is to ask yourself (and your partner) some questions about your sex life.  Are you both satisfied with the sex you’re currently having (both quantity and quality)? If the answer for either of you is no, it’s worth exploring what might be happening.  

Does either of you have a medical condition that makes sex less enjoyable? In the last few years, our society has become much more comfortable discussing erectile dysfunction, which is great. However, there is still relative silence about many other sexual problems.

Over 40 percent of women and over 30 percent of men experience clinically significant sexual difficulties. And more than one in ten women reports pain during sex, which is an obvious turn-off. The good news is that there are resources that can help. A good first step is to reach out to a trusted healthcare provider or a well-trained sex therapist.

Has either of you experienced trauma that makes sex feel scary? Even if you have a loving partner, a history of sexual assault or sexual abuse can make sex emotionally complicated. Sadly, one in five girls and one in twenty boys has survived sexual abuse. One in six women and one in thirty-three men has survived rape. These numbers mean that, even if we have not experienced sexual violence ourselves, we almost certainly know someone who has.

The National Sexual Assault Hotline provides free, confidential support to people who have survived sexual violence or harassment. You can call 800-656-4673 or go to RAINN’s website to chat with someone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Talking with a therapist or supportive healthcare professional is another good place to start.

Are one or both of you so exhausted that sex feels like just another thing on your task list? If this is the case, there might be ways to shift household responsibilities to give you more energy. Maybe your partner can help more around the house or a friend or family member can watch the kids for a night. Or maybe you need some time by yourself BEFORE you can truly enjoy intimacy with your partner.

I work in an open office and ride a crowded ferry to work. When I’m home, I’m either cooking, cleaning, or engaging in some form of childcare. There are definitely days when my sexiest fantasy involves curling up with a book IN AN EMPTY AND SILENT HOUSE. I am blessed to have a partner who understands this and tries to give me the space I need. Women, and especially moms, often hear that having an identity (or even five minutes) unrelated to family is not okay. I’m here to tell you that those moments to myself make me a better, more responsive partner and mother.

6. You Feel Grateful for Your Partner

If you’re in a happy relationship, you probably notice the kind things your partner does for you every day. Perhaps even more importantly, you’re used to thanking them for doing those things.

Scientists have demonstrated that gratitude is important in relationships for two primary reasons. Close relationships are inherently risky propositions. While romantic partners can provide us with love, fulfillment, and security, they can also bring us enormous pain. Relationships also take a lot of time and work. In order to feel safe enough to invest in our relationship we need to feel confident about two things.

  1. We need to trust that our partner is also committed to the relationship.
  2. We need to feel like our partner is the type of person who is worth our time and energy.  When you express gratitude towards your partner, you reassure them of your commitment to the relationship. This makes it safer for him/her to do nice things for you, which can create a virtuous cycle. Telling your partner how great they are also reminds you of why you’re in the relationship. This increases your motivation to do nice things for your partner, which again can lead to a virtuous cycle.

The good news is that gratitude is a skill that can be learned and practiced. One way to help yourself feel more grateful is to keep a daily “gratitude journal”. To do this, you spend just a few minutes a day listing out three to five things for which you are grateful. When researchers told people to keep a gratitude journal for 21 days, they were happier and even slept better. This was true even for people who had neuromuscular disease, which undoubtedly can add stress to someone’s daily life.

After reading this research, I started telling my husband three things for which I was grateful to him every evening. I have generally not been thanking him for huge things (although he did get me lovely roses on Valentine’s Day). Yesterday, my list was as follows. “Thanks for making me tea before work. Thanks for doing the dishes. Thanks for doing an extra 45 minutes of childcare because my ferry was late.” These are things he does for me even if I don’t say thank you. However, I feel good acknowledging them, and he seems to like being acknowledged. My husband has even started thanking me for little things I do for him (like buying him a surprise quart of chocolate milk on my last grocery trip).

The comedian Henny Youngman once said:

“The secret to a happy marriage remains a secret.” 

Scientists have been trying to figure out that secret for decades, but we still have a long way to go. Much of the research has focused on white, middle class, heterosexual couples, despite married couples actually becoming increasingly diverse. And sadly, about half of marriages continue to end in divorce. What seems clear is that loving and healthy romantic partnerships are worth the investment, both for individuals and society.

True love with your spouse is possible, and an unhappy marriage can be fixed. This surprising science about true love unearths the key to marital satisfaction and overall happiness.

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Rebecca Fraynt has a PhD in Clinical Psychology and is an all-around healthcare nerd. She lives near Seattle with her husband, toddler, and two rescue chihuahuas. When she's not working or chasing her dogs or child around the house, she's guzzling coffee, reading, or binge watching Star Trek.

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