Thursday, July 22, 2010

Some Science of Happy Marriage

I (Carol here) was rummaging through the it's-summer-so-let's-clean-up-the-office-desk pile (yes, I only have one of those piles; don't hate me) and came across an article I knew I'd want to read. Amen for a pile! The article is indeed one I wanted to read and its lessons are ones I now want to share with all of you. The brief piece called "Keeping Marriages Healthy, and Why It's So Difficult," admittedly did first pique my my curiosity because the sentence beginning the fourth paragraph uses the words "That is what happy couples do." WHAT?! That's my line! I use it with friends. My husband. Colleagues. And work it into as many conversations as possible. Yes, my friends are sick of hearing it. My husband, of course, is always eager to hear more. My colleagues? They're just too kind.

Dr. Karney, author of the Keeping Marriages Healthy, is also co-director of the Relationship Institute at the University of California and is on to something (note to self: "What Happy Couples Do" sounds like a great book title). He offers a smart, concise, and beautiful summary of why marriage IS so darn difficult. At the same time, he uses decades of research - both classic and contemporary - to point out what happy couples do differently than their unhappy peers. I'll attempt a summary of what he tells us:

Karney says, "People rarely change their minds about subjects that are important to them." (If you believe in gun control now you will likely believe the same 10 years from now. Same goes for abortion/women's rights, political leanings, etc). Marriage, unfortunately, is the exception to this rule. Even for people who stay married, high levels of marital happiness tend to decrease over time. What are the happy couples doing, those who maintain more of their initial levels of happiness?

1. If we are to stay happily married, we must learn how to "believe" our spouse is wonderful (over time, globally).
2. Happy couples, over time, "change their beliefs about what is important in their relationships." In other words, they believe (and this is a good thing) that the aspects of their marriage which have declined must simply not be as important after all (it's not that important that we don't hold hands when we walk. It's not that important that we don't kiss passionately every time she walks in the door). Instead, they selectively attend to only those parts of their marriage which they think are positive (We trust one another. He'll be there for me. We have a long and interesting history). Basically, they choose to focus on the positive (globally).
3. Although happy couples "believe" pretty consistently over time that their marriage is - from a balcony perspective, or globally - pretty positive, all couples naturally have day to day variations in how they feel about their partners. The difference between the happy and unhappy couple is this: Happy couples make "charitable explanations" of the other spouse's undesirable behavior. Example: "He left his socks on the floor yet again, but it's probably because he had a rough day at the office." And "She was really withdrawn and self-centered tonight at dinner, but I'll bet it's not because of lack of interest in me, but a hard day caring for her aging parents."
4. In a way, such "charitable explanations" of the other person's behavior - when explained as isolated and specific to the day, mood, or context - don't allow for overall change in the positive view of the marriage (again, from the "balcony" perspective).
5. As Karney explains "Making charitable explanations severs the link between specific negative perceptions and global evaluation of the marriage." Or, as he even more clearly explains: "Couples who are able to acknowledge their partner's faults while maintaining positive views of their marriage overall" are, simply, happier. They are also less likely to divorce."

So, dear spouse of mine (who surely is an avid reader of his wife's blog. Dude, seriously, you should read these at least once a year to find out when I'm sending important metamessages to you!), keep in mind that while we may disagree on how much to spend on that new refrigerator and the material of the counter tops which will soon grace our new kitchen, I'm still that spouse you love and trust ... 18 years and counting ... and I do make a great gin and tonic, eh? And you like my quirky, neat-nik-ish, silly tastes, right? And the way I have to make the bed right when the last toe is out. And the way I wash the dog with Rosemary Mint "Buddy Wash" (plus Buddy Conditioner). Globally. 48" refrigerator not withstanding, correct? Of course you do. Because that's what happy couples do.

* To read the full article by Benjamin Karney in the APA Science Brief, copy and paste the following link into your browser: www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2010/02/sci-brief.aspx

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