Should Couples Use Positive Emotions to Avoid Relationship Dissatisfaction? Research Suggests That A Happy Marriage Involves How We Respond to Our Partner’s Good News
A recent study claims that the key to a happy marriage may be simpler than we think. According to Raluca Petrican, R. Shayna Rosenbaum and Cheryl Grady of the Rotman Research Institute, a happy marriage is comprised of partners who are especially sensitive to their spouse’s positive news and experiences.
It is well established that being there for our partner in their time of need is an important part of a healthy relationship. However, this research seems to indicate that overall relationship satisfaction depends just as much on how our partner reacts to good information that we share.
In their research, Petrican and her colleagues studied 14 women with an average age of 72, who had been married an average of 40 years. To read their full report, click here. These women all completed a marriage questionnaire and then were asked to watch silent, 10 second videos while having their brains scanned. These videos either depicted their spouse or a stranger displaying an emotion that did not “match” with the one sentence description of the clip at the bottom of the screen. For example, the video might show the husband laughing while the description of the video detailed the time he lost his job. In essence, the videos tried to show a spouse reacting to a situation in a way that was surprising to their wife. In preparing these videos, the researchers were hoping to re-create the all-too common occurrence in which a husband is happy about something that their wife simply does not “get.” In doing so, the researchers wanted to see if the wives would take notice and be more sensitive to their spouse’s positive news as compared to that of a stranger.
The results of the study showed that the wives had more mental and emotional neural processing occur while watching their spouse’s reactions, as compared to those of a stranger. However, this only occurred when their husband displayed POSITIVE emotions such as laughing, smiling, etc. When their husband displayed a negative emotion during a video describing a happy experience, the women’s brain activity essentially remained the same while watching both their spouse and a complete stranger. In addition, the wives level of martial satisfaction according to the questionnaire correlated with the amount of neural processing they showed in response to watching their husband’s videos.
In essence, Petrican and her colleagues argue that these women’s brains showed a special sensitivity to their spouse’s unexpected positive emotion, supporting the idea that how we react to our partner’s optimistic sentiments plays a key role in overall relationship satisfaction. After all, the women in the study were obviously doing something right since they all were in committed, long-term marriages.
Positive Emotions Must Be Present For A Happy Marriage To Remain Intact
That being said, the study obviously fails to take into account other factors that must be present for a happy marriage to remain intact. While a wife’s response to her husband’s unexpected positive emotions likely does play a part in a happy marriage, the study does not look at the converse. What about a husband’s reaction to his wife’s positive emotions in a situation that he does not understand? Isn’t this just as important? Or what about the fact that the women’s neural processing was the same for both her husband and a stranger when both were displaying unexpected negative emotion? Shouldn’t a spouse arguably have more empathy for their partner as compared to a stranger? Especially in a situation where their partner is expressing negative emotion and is visibly upset?
Nevertheless, it is likely that most of us (or at least those of us hoping to one day be 72 years old and in a 40 plus year happy marriage), will agree that it is important to be sensitive to our partner’s positive emotions even if this emotion does not match up with our own feelings.
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Robert L. Mues
Robert Mues is the managing partner of Dayton, Ohio, law firm, Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues, and has received the highest rating from the Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review for Ethical Standards and Legal Ability. Mr. Mues is also a founding member of the "International Academy of Attorneys for Divorce over 50" blog.