What distinguishes happy couples?


In marriage, conflict is inevitable. Even the happiest couples argue.

And research shows they tend to argue about the same topics as unhappy couples: children, money, in-laws, intimacy.

So, what distinguishes happy couples?

According to “What are the Marital Problems of Happy Couples?

A Multimethod, Two-Sample Investigation,” a study published this August in Family Process, it is the way happy couples argue that may make a difference.

“Happy couples tend to take a solution-oriented approach to conflict, and this is clear even in the topics that they choose to discuss,” said lead author Amy Rauer, associate professor of child and family studies and director of the Relationships and Development Lab in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences.

Rauer and three colleagues – Allen Sabey of Northwestern University, Christine Proulx of the University of Missouri, and Brenda Volling of the University of Michigan – observed two samples of heterosexual, mostly white, educated couples who describe themselves as happily married.

Fifty-seven of the couples were in their mid- to late 30s and had been married an average of nine years; 64 of the couples were in their early 70s and had been married an average of 42 years.

Couples in both samples similarly ranked their most and least serious issues.

Intimacy, leisure, household, communication, and money were the most serious, as well as health for the older couples; couples in both samples ranked jealousy, religion, and family as the least serious.

When researchers observed couples discussing marital problems, all couples focused on issues with clearer solutions, such as the distribution of household labor and how to spend leisure time.

“Rebalancing chores may not be easy, but it lends itself to more concrete solutions than other issues,” Rauer said.

“One spouse could do more of certain chores to balance the scales.”

The couples rarely chose to argue about issues that are more difficult to resolve.

And Rauer suggests that this strategic decision may be one of the keys to their marital success.

“Focusing on the perpetual, more-difficult-to-solve problems may undermine partners’ confidence in the relationship,” Rauer said.

Instead, to the extent it is possible, focusing first on more solvable problems may be an effective way to build up both partners’ sense of security in the relationship.

“If couples feel that they can work together to resolve their issues, it may give them the confidence to move on to tackling the more difficult issues,” Rauer said.

As to which issues may be more difficult to resolve, couples avoided discussing challenges regarding their spouse’s health and physical intimacy.

These issues may be more difficult to address without challenging their partner’s sense of competence or making the partner feel vulnerable or embarrassed, resulting in more conflict.

“Since these issues tend to be more difficult to resolve, they are more likely to lead to less marital happiness or the dissolution of the relationship, especially if couples have not banked up any previous successes solving other marital issues,” Rauer said.

Researchers also found that couples who were married longer reported fewer serious issues and argued less overall.

This is consistent with previous research suggesting that older partners’ perceptions of spending less time with each other may lead them to prioritize their marriage and decide some issues are not worth the argument.

In other words, couples may want to choose their battles wisely, according to Rauer.

“Being able to successfully differentiate between issues that need to be resolved versus those that can be laid aside for now may be one of the keys to a long-lasting, happy relationship.”

In the past decades, numerous studies in economics, sociology, and demography emerged on the relationship between partnership and well-being or happiness.1 This literature has predominantly asserted a positive association between marriage and well-being (Carr and Springer 2010; Diener and Suh 1997; Gove and Shin 1989; Kalmijn 2017; Umberson and Karas Montez 2010; Waite and Gallagher 2000). Recently, a few studies examined whether such a positive relationship exists between cohabitation and well-being, finding mixed results (Brown et al. 2005; Hansen et al. 2007; Kamp Dush 2013; Kohn and Averett 2014a; Musick and Bumpass 2012; Soons and Kalmijn 2009; Soons et al. 2009; Wright and Brown 2017).

The positive association between partnership and well-being could originate from a causal effect of partnership on happiness.

However, the positive association could also be due to selection: happier individuals are more likely to enter a partnership (Johnson and Wu 2002; Kalmijn 2017; Kim and McKenry 2002; Sandberg-Thoma and Kamp Dush 2014; Stutzer and Frey 2006; Waldron et al. 1996; Wilson and Oswald 2005).2 Four nonexclusive explanations can be offered for the causal effect. First, partnered individuals may gain from production complementarities—that is, specialization and division of labor (Becker 19741981; Stutzer and Frey 2006).

Second, partnership may offer consumption and investment complementarities (Lundberg and Pollak 2015; Stevenson and Wolfers 2007). Couples may benefit from economies of scale by pooling resources, jointly consuming public goods and investing in children, and sharing leisure activities (Killewald 2013; Waite and Gallagher 2000).

Third, a partnership may strengthen and expand social relationships. Partnered individuals not only receive intimacy, commitment, and care from their partner but also obtain material and emotional support from the family, relatives, and friends of their partner (Kamp Dush and Amato 2005; Ross 1995). Finally, a partnership may introduce social control and mutual supervision salutary to the couple’s well-being.

The norms in a partnership and the daily supervision by the partner reduce possible risky behavior (Duncan et al. 2006; Fleming et al. 2010; Monden et al. 2003; Umberson 1992).

We investigate the well-being effects of partnership dynamics in the Netherlands, which has witnessed notable demographic changes in the past decades. In terms of partnership formation, cohabitation has become more popular at the expense of marriage. For example, by age 30, 34 % of women born in the 1950s had been or were still cohabiting, and 78 % had been or were still married.

Among women born in the 1970s, these percentages switched by age 30 to 69 % for cohabitation and 45 % for marriage. In 1998, there were approximately 3.4 million married couples, 0.6 million cohabiting households, and 2.2 million single households. In 2016, the number of married couples decreased to 3.3 million, and the numbers of cohabiting couples and single households increased to 1.0 and 2.9 million, respectively.

Furthermore, fewer cohabiting couples made a transition into marriage. For instance, for cohabiting women aged 20–24, the probability of being married within three years after the start of cohabitation clearly dropped.

For those starting to cohabit in 1970–1974, this probability was 58 %; for those starting to cohabit in 1980–1984, the probability reduced to 37 %; and for the 1990–1994 cohort, the probability further fell to 27 %. In the meantime, divorce rates have risen. In 1970, approximately 0.3 % of all marriages dissolved; in 2014, this rate was approximately 1 % (Statistics Netherlands n.d.).

Our study exploits panel data on partnerships and subjective well-being collected in the Netherlands over the period 2008–2013. Our data allow us to distinguish between marriage and cohabitation and between different-sex and same-sex relationships. Couples may invest different levels of tangible and intangible capital (Michael 2004) in marriage and cohabitation (Nock 1995; Stanley et al. 2004), and thus the subjective well-being derived from cohabitation and marriage may be different.

In addition, partnership effects on well-being can differ between different-sex and same-sex couples for two reasons.

First, same-sex couples may be less likely to obtain social connections and support for their partnership. Although same-sex marriages were legalized in 2001 in the Netherlands, they may still not be completely accepted by these couples’ family, relatives, neighbors, or even employers and fellow employees (Badgett 1995; Berg and Lien 2002; Carpenter 2007; Clain and Leppel 2001; Elmslie and Tebaldi 2007; Patacchini et al. 2015). As soon as same-sex partners start cohabiting or get married, their sexual orientation is likely to be disclosed to the public, including their employers and coworkers (Plug and Berkhout 2004). Possible discrimination and unfriendly behavior will directly harm their well-being (Hatzenbuehler et al. 2010; Huebner et al. 2004; Mays and Cochran 2001; McCabe et al. 2010; Meyer 2003). Second, pressure from family and society may force sexual minorities to adjust their behavior, which in turn affects their well-being.

For instance, they may refuse to openly enter a partnership, be less likely to adopt a child, shy away from prejudiced occupations (Plug et al. 2014), and bear a higher risk of partnership dissolution. According to Statistics Netherlands (n.d.), more than 30 % of female same-sex couples who married in 2005 had divorced by 2015.

The corresponding percentages for male same-sex and different-sex couples are 15 % and 18 %, respectively.3 Because of the heterogeneity of their partnership formation and stability, same-sex and different-sex couples may differ in the effect of marital partnership on well-being. The issues of the well-being and marital partnership of same-sex couples are largely unexplored in the literature.

Previous studies have investigated differences in well-being effects from marriage and cohabitation but neglected potential heterogeneity of sexual orientation.

To the best of our knowledge, we are the first to investigate whether same-sex and different-sex partnerships differ in their effect on subjective well-being.

Being the first country to implement the same-sex marriage law, the Netherlands bears the longest duration and relatively mature evolution of same-sex marriages. Thus, its relevant data are considerably appropriate for our specific research topic.

Moreover, the Netherlands is a country with a highly tolerant attitude to same-sex, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals or sexual minorities. For example, in the Eurobarometer 2015, 91 % of the Dutch respondents agreed with the statement that “same-sex marriages should be allowed throughout Europe,” whereas the average across the 28 EU countries was 61 % (European Commission 2015).

We also study whether partnership effects on subjective well-being are age cohort–specific. Older adults are more likely to be unmarried by remaining cohabiting or dating without making a formal commitment (Brown and Shinohara 2013; Brown et al. 2006; Calasanti and Kiecolt 2007; Cooney and Dunne 2001; Sassler 2010) and by increasingly divorcing (Brown and Lin 2012; Kennedy and Ruggles 2014). Later in life, cohabitation operates as a long-term alternative to marriage.

Therefore, the positive well-being effect of cohabitation may be comparable with that of marriage for the older cohort (Brown et al. 2012; King and Scott 2005; Vespa 2012; Wright and Brown 2017).

However, older adults may also prefer to protect the wealth they have accumulated over their lifetime rather than pool resources with their partner (Brown et al. 2012).

Cohabitation allows them to retain financial and economic autonomy (Brown et al. 2016; Chevan 1996; Hatch 1995). Moreover, older adults may be less willing to provide caregiving to a partner at later stages of their life. Cohabitation does not explicitly expect this kind of responsibility as marriage does (Talbott 1998).

Therefore, the positive well-being effect of cohabitation could be smaller than that of marriage for older adults. Our study adds to the literature on whether the well-being impact of cohabitation is similar to that of marriage for different age cohorts.

Finally, we analyze whether the well-being effects are symmetric for partnership formation and partnership dissolution. Symmetry implies that partnership formation and partnership dissolution have similar magnitudes but opposite signs.

Intuitively, at the beginning of a partnership, a couple is enjoying intimacy and mutual trust (Michael 2004), and thus partnership formation has a positive effect on well-being (Lucas and Clark 2006; Lucas et al. 2003).

However, as time goes by, a partnership may be confronted with difficulties and face a breakup.

Therefore, partnership dissolution may have a negative effect on the well-being of the individuals involved.

Only a handful of studies have examined the well-being gain produced by partnership formation and the well-being loss resulting from a partnership dissolution simultaneously, typically finding strong effects of partnership dissolution (Kalmijn 2017; Simon 2002; Strohschein et al. 2005; Williams and Umberson 2004). However, these studies have not rigorously tested whether partnership formation and dissolution have symmetric effects on well-being. Hence, our study is one of the first to systematically compare every entry-exit pair among different partnership transitions, examining whether the effects within every pair are symmetric.

Our contribution to the literature on partnership and well-being is threefold. First, we establish the causal effects of marriage and cohabitation on subjective well-being. Second, we systematically test the symmetry of partnership formation and dissolution.

Third, and most important, we examine well-being effects of same-sex partnerships. We confirm the results from previous studies that the well-being gains of marriage are larger than those of cohabitation.

We find that these effects are homogeneous to sexual orientation.

We also find gender differences in the well-being effects of same-sex partnerships: females are happier cohabiting, whereas marriage has a stronger well-being effect on males.

More information: Amy Rauer et al, What are the Marital Problems of Happy Couples? A Multimethod, Two‐Sample Investigation, Family Process (2019). DOI: 10.1111/famp.12483

Journal information: Family Process
Provided by University of Tennessee at Knoxville


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