The key to marital satisfaction for many people is having a more realistic view of marriage, research finds.
People who expect difficult times often do better in the long-term than those who expect nothing but wedded bliss.
The only exception is for people who have very good relationship skills — for them high expectations can translate into higher marital satisfaction.
Professor James McNulty, who co-authored the study, said:
“Over the long term, it is important for marriage partners to have accurate knowledge of their relationship’s strengths and weaknesses.
Satisfaction goes down when a spouse’s expectations don’t fit with reality.”
The findings come as a surprise to some, as therapists sometimes recommend that couples keep their expectations high.
Professor McNulty said:
“There’s been a lot of emphasis on the idea of positive illusions in marriage.
Sure, it may make you happy in the short-run to think your spouse is better than he or she actually is, but if the reality doesn’t match the image, eventually your satisfaction is going to decline.”
The study involved 82 couples who were followed from the first few months of marriage.
All had their marital problem-solving skills assessed, along with their expectations and how much they tended to blame their partner for anything that went wrong.
After the four years of the study, those that had the highest expectations, along with the worst problem-solving skills, were the least satisfied with their marriages.
However, those with good relationship skills were better off to maintain higher expectations.
Professor McNulty explained:
“Many people would think couples with good relationship skills but low expectations would be pleasantly surprised by the positive outcomes that would come about because of their good relationship skills.
But if they have low expectations, they may not put forth the effort to work on their relationship.
So their low expectations really prevent them from taking advantage of their skills and achieving their potential satisfaction.”
In other words, if you’ve got good relationship and problem-solving skills, aim high.
If not, best to have more modest expectations of marriage.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (McNulty & Karney, 2004).