W. Brad Wilcox, PhD, director of the National Marriage Project at University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.
Most of us have an intuitive understanding of what makes for a happy marriage —never go to bed angry, make time for each other, and maintain a basic level of respect. But, especially over the past 40 years, researchers have been applying scientific scrutiny to the mysteries of marriage, producing sometimes surprising findings about which choices, behaviors and attitudes are associated with marriages that last and which are associated with those that fail.
Putting something as ethereal as love under the microscope may seem cold, but it’s effective. Simply by observing couples’ interactions, marriage scientists are able to predict their likelihood of divorce with 90% accuracy. But it’s important to remember that most of these findings are associations, not direct causal links. Still, aiming for the habits associated with happy marriages makes sense.
Bottom Line Personal asked sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, to explain the science behind successful unions…
Couples with joint checking accounts are happier. In this age of individualism, couples are frequently advised to maintain separate accounts so each spouse feels free and independent. But when researchers at Northwestern University assigned newly married people to maintain joint or separate accounts, those with joint accounts were more likely to be flourishing in their marriages.
The finding is probably only partly about money. A joint checking account exemplifies what I call the “we before me” mentality in marriage—the idea that you and your partner are a team, taking on the world as one unit. In fact, when an international team led by psychologist and relationship researcher Samantha Joel, PhD, looked at 43 different studies to identify predictors of marriage quality, they found that the top predictor is commitment—which is partly about being dedicated to the idea that the couple comes before the individual.
Marrying early is a bad idea—but so is marrying late. It’s no surprise that teen marriages are at high risk for divorce. For every additional year of age before a person marries, the couple’s divorce risk falls by 11%, according to our research at the Institute for Family Studies. But interestingly, after age 32, the opposite starts to happen—divorce risk climbs by 5% for each additional year.
It’s easy to explain why too-early marriages fail. In our late teens and early 20s, we have lots of growing and changing to do. By our late 20s, we’re more stable and have some life experience under our belts and a decent start on a career.
But what happens after age 32? Nicholas Wolfinger, PhD, on whose research this finding is based, admits that there’s no clear reason why divorce rates increase for those who marry later in their 30s, but he speculates that those who’ve waited that long may have grown too comfortable as singles to be as suited for long-haul marriage.
Cohabit with caution. Americans are delaying marriage for longer, partly thanks to the lack of stigma around cohabitation. Today, more than 70% of couples live together before marriage (up from only 5% in the 1960s). Premarital cohabitation makes intuitive sense—why not make sure you and your partner are truly compatible before committing? But my own research and that of others have found that cohabiting comes with some caveats.
Couples who cohabit before marriage have an increased risk for divorce over the next 15 years. In fact, cohabitation boosts divorce risk by about 15%. And there’s an exception to the rule of thumb about the inadvisability of early marriage—religious couples who marry in their early 20s without first cohabiting have lower divorce rates than cohabiting couples who marry in their late 20s. Religion may add spiritual or psychological stability to a marriage through shared values and a strong support group.
Novelty-seeking couples are happier. Date nights, of course, are good for a marriage because they’re a time to focus on one another. Many couples faithfully drop the kids with a sitter to pursue their go-to activity once a month or so—very often dinner and a movie. But as crucial as such routine rendezvous are, doing new and exciting things together is what really causes relationship satisfaction to surge.
Researcher Arthur Aron, professor of psychology at State University of New York at Stony Brook, asked 53 married couples to engage in date-night activities that were deemed either “pleasant” or “exciting.” Before-and-after assessments of the couples’ marital satisfaction showed that exciting activities—think escape room, indoor skydiving, surfing lessons—renewed couples’ excitement about their partners more than did pleasant activities, such as dinner, drinks and a movie.
Why? Using the language of social scientists, Aron and colleagues wrote, “Habituation [is] an obstacle to relationship maintenance.” Put in plain speech, when things get stale, we start taking our partners for granted.
Additional research went further, however, showing that spouses get an immediate burst of renewed attraction toward their partners when they try something new and challenging together—even a seven-minute activity, as long as it’s “novel and arousing.” Beyond just staving off boredom, shared activities outside the comfort zone make us feel freer and more fulfilled as individuals, and that excitement and novelty open us up psychologically to those old honeymoon vibes.
By the way, if you’re scheduling date nights once a month, you may want to up the ante. A study done by the National Marriage Project found that both husbands and wives are three times more likely to be very happy in their marriages if they have a date night once a week. That may be a tall order, but the implication is clear—more time spent alone together predicts a lower risk for divorce.
Tiny gestures matter. For their book The Normal Bar: The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples, Chrisanna Northrup, MD, and Pepper Schwartz, PhD, studied thousands of couples to isolate the variables associated with happy, lasting marriages. At the top of the list were factors humbling in their simplicity—physical and verbal expressions of affection, cuddling on the couch, a peck on the cheek in passing, a love note or warming your spouse’s feet under the blankets at night.
Any of these gestures is trivial by itself, but researchers agree that the accumulation of these expressions of love is what makes people feel they have a true partner. Whether consciously or not, we’re constantly looking for reassurances of our spouse’s commitment. Whenever we find evidence of it, the bond grows stronger.
Text messaging lends itself perfectly to these gestures of affection. Researchers at Brigham Young University found that, among 276 young adults in committed relationships, texting to express affection—even just a simple love emoji—was associated with a stronger sense of attachment to their partners. When you receive a text from your spouse during the workday—no matter what it actually says—the subtext is clearly, I’m at work, but I’m thinking about you.
There is a magic number for handling conflict. We all know that married life isn’t a bed of roses, and that conflicts will arise. How we handle those conflicts matters—a lot.
Renowned marriage scientist John Gottman, PhD, analyzed discussions between thousands of couples. He found that during conflicts, couples who remained respectful and positive were more likely to stay with their partners in the years ahead. But it wasn’t simply a matter of countering every negative interaction with a positive one…or of making sure to have more positive than negative exchanges. Instead, successful couples had, at minimum, five positive exchanges for every negative exchange. Fewer than that put them into fragile territory.
You’re not expected to keep track of how many positive versus negative interactions you have, but marriages are susceptible to both virtuous and vicious cycles. Being empathic, engaged and affectionate creates a virtuous cycle that predicts both quality and stability of marriage. Getting bogged down in defensiveness and contempt creates a vicious cycle that can threaten the marriage.
Be vigilant. It’s alarming how quickly a previously happy union can crash-land in divorce court. You can be in a seemingly good spot in your marriage, but if you’re not making a regular effort to maintain the quality of your married life, you can end up in trouble.