Sunday, December 1, 2013

Is being optimistic about your marriage enough?

In past articles, I have written about the power of positive psychological traits and practices in increasing overall life satisfaction. The sum of the literature in those domains is that optimism and gratitude psychologically increase the likelihood, of behavior that is consistent with attaining your goals, such as improving your health and higher academic achievement. But, is optimism universally predictive of positive outcomes? For example, does optimism about your relationship predict future marriage satisfaction? Luckily, my good friend and colleague, Justin Lavner, is an expert in all things pertaining to intimate partnerships, and he just published a study asking exactly that question.


To answer this question, Lavner recruited 251 couples (502 spouses) when they were newlyweds. Newlyweds had to be within 6 months of their 1st marriage, have no kids, and whose wives were less than 35 years old. After consenting to participate in the study, each participating couple completed a conversation task where researchers coded negative communication such as sarcasm, criticism, avoiding responsibility, and hostility between partners. Optimism was measured by asking each participant the question, “Over the next four years, do you expect that your overall feelings about your marriage will become… 1 = much worse, 2 = a little worse, 3 = stable, 4 = a little better, 5 = much better.” In addition, each participant reported on the other stress in their lives, the use of physical aggression toward their partner, their self-esteem, and how optimistic they generally are.

These couples were followed every 6 months for the next 4 years and asked to report their marriage satisfaction. Lavner and his colleagues then identified trajectories of marriage satisfaction across time and what predicted trajectories of stable, improving, or declining marriage satisfaction.

As one would hope, newlyweds universally predicted that their relationships would remain stable or improve over time, while marital satisfaction universally declined across these 4 years. If you examine these trajectories by husbands and wives, wives who predicted improvement in relationship satisfaction experienced the greatest decline in marital satisfaction compared with those who predicted stability. A similar association was not present among husbands. This might mean that women’s optimism might represent doubts about the current status of their relationship.

Further evidence to this point, they also found that women who predicted that their relationship would improve over the next 4 years had somewhat lower satisfaction at the time of the initial interview than their stability predicting peers. Wives predicting improvements in their relationships also had lower self-esteem, higher use of physical aggression, and higher reported external stress than wives predicting stability. However, there was no difference in divorce rates between these couples. So, basically, wives who predicted their relationship would get “much better” were able to believe that their relationship would improve within the 1st four years of marriage despite more use of physical aggression, lower marriage satisfaction at their marriage onset, and lower self-esteem. The fact that these women experience declines in relationship satisfaction over time suggests that their ability to remain optimistic under these conditions only deteriorates.  

Most importantly, this data suggests that newlywed couples are universally optimistic despite premarital doubts about their relationship that play out in their satisfaction over the first few years of marriage.  Thinking back to what we’ve learned about optimism in the past, these findings only reinforce what I’ve said before. Optimism is a positive psychological practice as long as it facilitates behavior. Just believing things will get better is not enough. This study wasn’t designed to measure behaviors taken by these couples to improve their marriage satisfaction, and optimism about an improving relationship is only effective when it leads to behaviors that help achieve that goal. One behavior that may protect couples from rapidly declining satisfaction in their marriage is participating in some form of pre-marital counseling which may help couples to address these issues before they say their vows. This study also identified a specific subgroup of wives that may benefit from premarital counseling before marriage to address these issues. Specifically, women who find themselves resorting to physical aggression against their partners, have lower self-esteem, and have more stressors in their life.  

Interestingly, the study did not find that these risks for declining marriage satisfaction resulted in higher divorce rates. This may be a good or a bad thing, but remember they only looked at the first 4 years.

For more on research by Justin Lavner and his colleagues click here.

Lavner, JA, Karney, BR, Bradbury, TN. (2013). Newlyweds' optimistic forecasts of their marriage: for better or for worse? Journal of Family Psychology, 4, 531-540. doi: 10.1037/a0033423.


1 comment:

  1. I think this can also point to how optimism not based in reality can be futile. Meaning, the wives who were more optimistic about the future of their marriage despite the status quo of their marriage possibly being sub-par are ignoring the reality of their marriage. They are blindly being optimistic despite the evidence in their relationship pointing to possible reasons not to be. There has to be some real validity to the optimism, otherwise you are just hoping for another reality. I agree with you too, they are then hoping for some improvement without changing behaviors to make them happen. You can't just hope for things to change. Thanks for the letting us know about this interesting study!

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