Ok, so you’re going to need 6-8 Gala apples, 2 sticks of butter, and–wait a minute, wrong recipe, that’s apple pie. Although we’re pretty sure a well-made apple pie does play a pretty big role in marital satisfaction, today we’d like to share with you a few of the other more research-backed components of a happy marriage.
If you were to ask a room full of people what makes a relationship succeed over the course of a lifetime, you’d probably get answers like ‘honesty’, ‘communication’, ‘compromise’, and other vague aphorisms. And they’re not wrong. Nevertheless, we’d like to shed light on some of the lesser-known secret ingredients for long-term marital success and happiness. We’re going to skip the obvious ones that you already know about (love, affection, intimacy, etc.) and tell you about some research-backed ingredients in a happy marriage that you may not have heard about before.
How Do You Fight?
The key isn’t how often a couple argues–far from it. What’s more important is how a couple argues. If the four horsemen of the relationship-pocalypse (defensiveness, criticism, contempt, and stonewalling) start to march their way into your fights, you’re in trouble. On the other hand, the research shows that if fights are peppered with repair attempts, love, and affection rather than animosity or passiveness, a marriage is much more likely to be sustainable (Dhaliwal, 2021).
For example, relationship psychologist John Gottman (2015) tells the story of a married couple who frequently argues over their differences in cleanliness. Carmen is very organized and tidy, whereas Bill…isn’t. He tends to leave his things around in odd places and fail to pick up after himself. This is a perpetual problem that isn’t likely to ever be solved. However, their arguments over cleanliness don’t damage Carmen and Bill’s relationship because of the way they argue about it. If Bill leaves a dirty sock laying around, Carmen will hold her nose and tease him. If she’s stressed out, maybe she’ll raise her voice, at which point Bill will give her a shoulder rub.
This example highlights two things that couples who argue well do frequently: They offer kind gestures (like a shoulder rub) to try to repair during conflict, and they bring a sense of good-humoredness to their disagreements.
In recent years, multiple authors and researchers have highlighted the centrality of positivity resonance in promoting happy marriages (Dhaliwal, 2021). If you’re thinking ‘what the heck is positivity resonance?’ don’t worry–so were we. But it actually makes a lot of sense. Imagine a guitar string vibrating and emitting a beautiful note as you pluck it. Now imagine an identical guitar string of the same length, material, and thickness being plucked with the same force at the exact same moment (Kim, 2021). Those guitar strings are in resonance with each other. That’s sort of like what happens during moments of positivity resonance, or times when two people share a moment of connection underscored by three specific ingredients:
Shared positive emotion (Kim, 2021): Feeling the same good feeling at the same time = shared positive emotion. ‘Nuff said.
Mutual care (Kim, 2021): Both people need to show the same (high) level of care for each other in that moment.
Behavioral and biological synchrony (Dhaliwal, 2021): When your facial expressions, gestures, and maybe even physiological markers like heart rate match the other person, you’ve achieved synchrony.
During a moment of positivity resonance, these three factors co-occurr for an instant, as described below:
“So just yesterday morning, I was walking to work and I had a pedestrian crosswalk and a gentleman came up in his truck and stopped and as I walked by I kind of waved to him and said, you know, mouthed, ‘Thank You’ and he looked at me and he looked a little surprised but he smiled and he waved and he said, ‘You’re welcome.’ And I think we both felt kind of good after doing that…So positivity resonance…is that sense that you have these emotions going back and forth between the two of you, so it’s like a mind meld, which i think is a great picture to [use to imagine] that the two of you have become one, just for that micro moment, you become one.” (Rothstein & Stromme, 2022).
5:1 Positive-Negative Ratio
If you have a negative interaction followed by a positive one, the positive interaction balances the damage from the negative and resets the score back to 0 (or neutral), no? Well, no. Unfortunately, we humans have something called negativity bias. Back in our hunter-gatherer days, it was important for our survival that we remember negative experiences. If we didn’t remember where that tiger likes to hide out, we’d die. If we didn’t remember which berries killed great uncle Ugg, we’d also die. Remembering where to find the non-fatal berries that (as a bonus) are also tasty was also evolutionarily advantageous, but not as important for our survival as remembering what dangerous experiences to avoid. Therefore, our brains evolved to remember and inwardly emphasize negative experiences with more tenacity than positive ones.
Fortunately, this characteristic has helped us evolve this far. Thanks, negativity bias! Unfortunately, it’s not always advantageous. It leads us to dwell on and feel downtrodden by the negative, even though most of our negative experiences these days are not actually as dire as the prospect of being on the losing end of a fight with a tiger. In relationships, it means that negative and positive interactions do not carry equal weight–negative interactions carry more weight than positive. Five times more, to be exact (Barker, 2014).
If you and your fiance have a dumb argument about whose turn it is to do the dishes, you’re going to need five positive interactions to balance out the damage from the argument. You don’t actually need to count (although doing so on occasion might be a beneficial experiment that can help you shed light on the dynamics of your particular relationship) but you should take note of general trends. If you tend to have approximately an equal number of positive versus negative interactions, that’s probably not a good sign. It doesn’t have to spell doom, but it does mean that your relationship is much more likely to last (and will become substantially happier, too) if you make a point of creating more positive interactions.
Get a Prenup
There are a multitude of ways getting a prenup can positively influence marital satisfaction. Here are just a couple of our favorites:
Peace of mind: A huge part of writing a prenup is making a contingency plan in case of divorce. Although no one wants to talk about it, everyone has that little voice in the back of their minds that whispers “but…what if?” The process of drafting a prenup requires communication about that little what-if. Fears and unresolved issues get bigger when kept unspoken in the dark, but are manageable in the light. The discussions surrounding prenups are akin to shining a light on these fears, and the prenup helps you to open up communication around these important issues. It might at some points be an uncomfortable process, but getting on the same page about your contingency plan can help put those fears to rest and give you peace of mind.
Financial Planning: Some couples don’t discuss finances in nearly as much detail as they should before they tie the knot. When you write your prenup, you’ll need to communicate in much more detail than you might be used to about how assets are going to be allocated and managed during your marriage. You’ll also decide which present and potential future assets will be considered separate property, and which will become marital property. You’ll also talk about your financial realities (drafting a prenup involves full financial disclosure from each of you) and your financial expectations during marriage. If you’re someone who feels sheepish discussing money, the prenup process provides the ideal forum through which to talk through these topics.
If you’re at all worried about broaching the topic of getting a prenup, here’s how to bring up a prenup without upsetting your partner. This can either be done through attorneys (expensive and stressful) or through Hello Prenup (affordable and can be done from the comfort of your couch). Here’s how our process works and FAQ covering all your questions and preconceived notions about prenups.
To stack the odds of marital happiness in your favor, learn to argue with affection, humor, and repair, cultivate moments of positivity resonance, pay attention to the ratio of positive to negative interactions in your relationship, and absolutely get a prenup. May your marriage be happy and last a lifetime!
Barker, E. 2014. Recipe For A Happy Marriage: The 7 Scientific Secrets. Retrieved from: https://time.com/30921/recipe-for-a-happy-marriage-the-7-scientific-secrets/
Rothstein, L & Stromme, D. Creating micro-moments in your community. Retrieved from: https://extension.umn.edu/two-you-video-series/creating-micro-moments-your-community
Dhaliwal, J. 2021. What are the Factors Contributing to Long-Lasting Marriages? Doctoral Dissertaion, Alliant International University. ProQuest Dissertation Publishing.
Gottman, J. M. 2015. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Harmony