Here Is the Secret to Marriage Happiness

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It’s not easy to calm down and think straight during a heated exchange, but wives who do may have happier marriages.

Every couple argues, and some conflict may not be bad for building a relationship. But when spats become heated, that’s when blame, criticism and name-calling spew forth, sometimes unintentionally. And too much of that isn’t as good for marital happiness, as plenty of research shows.

There are no secrets to stopping the tirade — each couple has their own way of resolving differences. But, say researchers from the University of California Berkeley and Northwestern University, the happiness of a marriage may depend in part on who makes the first conciliatory move to lower the emotional temperature.

The scientists analyzed the videotapes of 80 husbands and wives in their 50s and 60s who had been recorded periodically over 13 years as part of a long-term study, as they discussed a subject of conflict. By measuring and coding each person’s facial expressions, gestures, and emotional and physiological responses (such as blood pressure, heart rate, sweating and body temperature), they identified the point at which each of them was most upset and timed how long it took them to calm down. More than 10 years later, the team asked the couples to return to assess how satisfied they were with their relationship. Reporting in the journal Emotion, they found that the length of time each member of a couple spent being upset was strongly correlated with their long-term marital happiness. What’s more, the couples’ happiness was also connected to which member — the husband or the wife — calmed down first. When wives calmed down quickly, for example, the couple was likelier to be happy both in the short and long term. Husbands cooling off did not have the same effect on the marriage.

So are women from Venus after all?  “Women are presumed to be better at emotions,” says the study’s lead author Lian Bloch, an assistant professor at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology-Stanford Consortium, acknowledging that this may largely be the result of gender stereotyping. “There’s a power dynamic in any dyad [pair],” she says. “Emotionally, the power dynamic privileges the wife.” So when couples argue, she says, “Both are looking to her as the emotional thermometer of how things are going. Women take more responsibility for emotional harmony in a marriage.”

When wives calm down quickly, they can express their feelings more clearly and communicate more constructively, coming up with potential solutions to their problem. As an example, let’s say that Karen is angry that Rick keeps coming home late from work, leaving her to put the kids the bed on her own. If they argue about this and she recovers quickly, she might say, Bloch suggests, “I feel resentful that I do all the work with the kids. Is it possible for you to come home earlier and finish your work after we put the kids to bed?”

Men seem to be not so good at initiating such effective problem-solving actions. Rick, for example, might suggest to his red-faced wife, “Why don’t you have a girls night out so you’ll feel better?,” which would only escalate the emotional level of the argument — not so helpful to solving the problem.

The fact that women may be better at finding ways to diffuse a highly charged situation isn’t surprising, given the large body of research that suggests that women are more sensitive to issues in relationships and tend to navigate conflict better, says Thomas Bradbury, a marriage researcher at University of California Los Angeles. “If a man is not so good at knowing how to do it, most of us think that his wife will compensate. But the opposite is less likely. This study shows that when women do navigate this well, it has a long-term payoff.”

The study’s authors note that their couples are from from the Baby Boom and World War II generation and therefore experienced different gender socialization trends than younger people. So Bloch speculates that younger couples might be more flexible in their gender roles, leading to a different dynamic that may not produce the same interaction between how arguments are resolved and the happiness of the marriage.

There are hints, however, that the husband-wife dynamic may be relatively immune to generational shifts in gender roles. Ashley Randall, a relationships researcher in counseling psychology at Arizona State University, found that most couples tend to interact in a similar gender pattern across a wide age-range, independent of how long they had been together. “In my research on how men and women cooperate,” she says, “women lead the way. Men tended to follow the woman’s emotion.” When the female partner was more negative, Randall observed, the male became negative. When she was positive, he became positive. But even in that study, women would try to adjust the emotional milieu to achieve peace or a solution. If , for example, the man acted negatively and said, “I’m not excited about this subject,” his partner might suggest another way of dealing with it. “Wives really matter when it comes to regulating emotional negativity in conflict,” Randall says.

“These are mostly subconscious patterns,” she says, “but it’s important for partners to realize they have a lot of emotional influence on each other. “There are two people in this dance, but women may have to take the first step and other things will follow.”

That may be something that husbands and wives know intuitively, but now there’s science to back up their hunches.