The Research on Stress and Happy Marriages

happy couple
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All marriages have conflict at some point in time, as couples struggle to make important decisions and move through life. How we handle this conflict can define a relationship, and make it happier or more stress-laden. Couples who use disagreements to better understand one another may become closer, while those who tear each other down during the course of conflict tend to have more overall hostility and frustration in their relationships. We’ve known this much for a while, but research shows more detail on how many people are in conflict-prone marriages, and what relationship features are associated with greater marital happiness and longevity.

How You Handle Conflict Matters for Your Marriage

Researchers from Penn State University examined data from 1000 couples and viewed the progression of their relationships over the course of 20 years. During the course of this research, they found some interesting patterns. They measured the couples' levels of marital happiness/satisfaction and conflict, classifying them as "high," "middle" (close to the mean), and "low" on both trajectories, and recorded the duration of the marriage (and rates of divorce) as well. One thing they discovered is that the way couples handled their disagreements tended to fall into four categories, which went hand-in-hand with how happy and stable the marriages tended to be.

The happiest and most lasting marriages were what researchers labeled “validator” marriages, which were characterized by shared decision-making. These marriages, which constituted the highest proportion of marriages–54%–included middle to high levels of happiness and middle to low levels of conflict. “The validator marriages are often seen as positive because couples are engaged with each other and are happy. We found that in these marriages, each partner shared in decision making and in housework,” Claire Kamp Dush, one of the researchers, said in a press release. These marriages tended to be more likely to last.

Unresolved Conflict Adds Stress

A less-happy group was identified as “volatile,” and was characterized by high levels of conflict and high-to-middle levels of happiness. 20% of participants were involved in volatile marriages, and these tended to be less stable than the validator marriages.

Even less happy were the “hostile” group, who also made up 20% of couples and had the most conflict-ridden relationships. Unsurprisingly, this group was the most likely to divorce. Other research shows that conflict can bring greater stress and other problems as well, so this group would be most in need of new strategies for dealing with their disagreements.

A fourth group, the “avoider” marriages, communicated less, but were happy and had more lasting relationships than did the volatile or hostile pairs. These couples had more traditional marriages in which husbands were not involved in housework and in which the participants believed in life-long marriage. “These couples believed in traditional gender roles,” explains Dush, “and may have avoided conflict because of their beliefs in life-long marriage. These couples were also unlikely to divorce.”

As in validator marriages, avoider marriages have lower levels of conflict but were considered to be less healthy overall. “Avoiding conflict could lead couples to avoid other types of engagement with their spouse,” Dush said. “A healthy marriage needs to have both spouses engaged and invested in the relationship.”

If your marriage isn't quite where you'd like it to be, there is good news. Although this particular research study did not involve specific interventions, certain communication styles are connected with greater happiness and less conflict, and these styles can be developed. With attention, practice, and time, healthy communication skills can be developed, and greater relationship satisfaction can be achieved.

1 Source
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  1. Kamp Dush CM, Taylor MG. Trajectories of Marital Conflict Across the Life Course: Predictors and Interactions With Marital Happiness TrajectoriesJ Fam Issues. 2012;33(3):341-368. doi:10.1177/0192513X11409684

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.