How Setting High Expectations Can Make Your Marriage Better

Photographed by Eva Salvi.
Eureka! Science has discovered the key to a happy marriage. Or, well, something like that. A study published in April's Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin followed couples over four years to track their relationship satisfaction. The results are enlightening, if not exactly a recipe for happiness.

Florida State University Professor James K. McNulty surveyed 135 newlywed, mostly white, couples in their 20s, with a combined income of less than $40,000 in Tennessee, according to New York magazine. They were asked to measure the standards for their marriages in categories such as caring, support, and independence, Science Daily reports. They were also asked about their marital problems and level of satisfaction in their relationship while participating in videotaped marital discussions. Then, over the next four years, they answered a questionnaire about their marriage every six months.

McNulty's conclusion boils down to this: The couples who had high expectations of their relationships and who fulfilled those expectations were satisfied with their marriage. Those who had high expectations and didn't fulfill them were not satisfied — which seems pretty obvious. Those who had low expectations that were fulfilled were actually pretty satisfied, too. Ergo, the key to being satisfied is to know in advance how much to expect.
That sounds pretty difficult, until you turn to the second part of the study's findings, which are based on those videos. McNulty's team studied whether the couples exhibited direct or indirect hostility toward each other when discussing problems.

"When it comes to verbal problem-solving, indirect hostility is more destructive than direct hostility," McNulty said, per Science Daily. This is because by being direct, couples are able to identify their problems and solve them, therefore they can also meet those established high standards. The passive-aggressive or sarcastic couples, meanwhile, did not solve their problems so easily.

Speaking to NPR via email, McNulty explained two ways of fixing a disconnect between expectations and satisfaction. "One is to try to fix the marital problems. Marital therapists can help with this. Talking about the underlying issues can also help. These are the best options if problems are fixable," he said. If those problems can't be fixed, "You can understand, realize, and accept that you will not be able to achieve all the benefits you have been demanding out of marriage."

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