The Top Ten Strengths of Happy Marriages
Marriage can be one of the most satisfying and fulfilling of all human relationships; a source of deep joy, strength, and a haven of quiet rest and comfort from the world. Ironically, marital relationships also possess the capacity to be very disappointing, frustrating, and painfully conflicted; a source of great unhappiness, vulnerability, and turmoil.
Every year dozens of books are written defining the common issues plaguing bad marriages with an emphasis on prescribing behavioral remedies. In 1999, one of America’s foremost marriage researchers, Dr. David Olson took a new tack in trying to understand couples and help them build healthy relationships. Rather than focusing exclusively on problems, he set out to discover what specific strengths make for a happy marriage. He theorized that the best way to empower couples is to zero in on the resources that characterize strong marriages rather than faltering ones.
Using a sample of 21,501 married couples from all fifty states, Dr. Olson conducted an extensive survey utilizing a comprehensive assessment tool called ENRICH. ENRICH focuses on 20 major areas in marital relationships. Out of these 20 areas, he and his researchers selected the top ten: communication, couple flexibility, couple closeness, personality issues, conflict resolution, sexual relationship, leisure activities, family and friends, financial management, and spiritual beliefs. They then chose the best item from each of the ten areas that discriminates between happy couples and unhappy couples. Table 1 below lists the top ten strengths of happy couples:
|Table 1: Top Ten Strengths of Happy Couples
|1. I am very satisfied with how we talk to each other.||90%||15%|
|2. We are creative in how we handle our differences.||78%||15%|
|3. We feel very close to each other.||98%||27%|
|4. My partner is seldom too controlling.||78%||20%|
|5. When discussing problems, my partner understands my opinions and ideas.||87%||19%|
|6. I am completely satisfied with the amount of affection from my partner.||72%||28%|
|7. We have a good balance of leisure time spent together and separately.||71%||17%|
|8. My partner’s friends or family rarely interfere with our relationship.||81%||38%|
|9. We agree on how to spend money.||89%||41%|
|.||10. I am satisfied with how we express spiritual values and beliefs.||89%||36%|
Using these top ten strengths, Dr. Olson discovered that it is possible to predict with 93% accuracy whether a couple is happily or unhappily married. To identify the most difficult relationship areas and specific stumbling blocks for couples, the research team analyzed the entire sample of 21,501 married couples. Three problem areas stood out above all the others; conflict resolution, couple flexibility, and personality.
The most common problem areas that married couples struggle with are clearly associated with an inability to resolve conflict in a constructive, healthy manner and a failure to show honor and respect to one another. Table 2 details the top ten specific stumbling blocks that originate from these problem areas.
|Table 2 Top Ten Stumbling Blocks for Married Couples||% of Couples|
|1.||We have problems sharing leadership equally.||93%|
|2.||My partner is sometimes too stubborn.||87%|
|3.||Having children reduces our marital satisfaction.||84%|
|4.||My partner is too negative or critical.||83%|
|5.||I wish my partner had more time and energy for recreation with me.||82%|
|6.||I wish my partner were more willing to share feelings.||82%|
|7.||I always end up feeling responsible for the problem.||81%|
|8.||I go out of my way to avoid conflict with my partner.||79%|
|9.||We have difficulty completing tasks or projects.||79%|
|10.||Our differences never seem to get resolved.||78%|
The following is a short description of the findings for eight of the top ten relationship areas from which the top ten strengths of happy couples were identified:
There is little surprise that communication was the strength most predictive of happily married couples. After all, communication and intimacy are closely interrelated. Counselors frequently report that unhappy couples often verbalize the complaint, “We don’t communicate.” Paradoxically, it is impossible not to communicate. The absence of conversation and body language “communicate” volumes about how one partner feels toward the other.
When asked to respond to the statement, “I am very satisfied with how we talk to each other,” almost all happily married couples (90%) agreed that it was true of their marriage. Of the unhappily married couples, only 15% agreed that it characterized their relationship.. Happily married couples are significantly more likely to feel understood by their partners (79%) and free to express their true feelings (96%) than their unhappy counterparts. A majority of happy spouses believe their partners are good listeners (83%) and do not make comments to put them down (79%).
Flexibility refers to how open to change couples are in their relationship. It is critical in marriage because it helps a couple better manage the stress of crises, change, and problems. In the national survey, couple flexibility was the second most important strength that differentiates happy and unhappy couples. Seventy-eight percent of the happily married couples agreed that they were creative in how they handle problems compared to 15% of unhappy couples. Happy couples are able to adjust to change when necessary (64%) and compromise for the good of the relationship (68%). Their ability to adapt constructively during periods of stress ensures happy couples a quicker return to a state of equilibrium without damaging the relationship.
Closeness refers to how emotionally connected one partner feels to the other. It involves how they balance separateness and togetherness – their private space and intimate connection. Couple closeness was the third most important strength reported by happy couples. When happy couples were compared with unhappy couples, there were distinct differences. For instance, there was a significantly higher agreement about feeling very close to one other among happy couples (98%) than unhappy couples (27%). They were three more times (88%) as likely as unhappy couples (28%) to agree that they find it easy to think of things to do together. Happy couples also have togetherness as a top priority compared to unhappy couples (88% vs. 28%), and are much more open about asking one another for help (96% vs. 40%).
The way we handle problems, more than the problems themselves, often presents the greater difficulty for unhappy couples. Conflict is a natural and inevitable part of human relationships. It does not mean that love is absent but simply that marital partners will have differences opinion and relations will not always be harmonious. The real issue surrounds how a couple resolves their issues of conflict. When handled in a healthy, constructive manner, the resolution of a problem actually strengthens and benefits the marriage.
The most significant issue that distinguishes happy from unhappy couples regarding conflict resolution is whether each partner feels understood when discussing problems (87% to 19% respectively). Happy couples also report that their disagreements are more likely to get resolved than unhappy couples (71% vs.11%). Finally, partners in happy marriages are much more likely to agree that they have similar ideas about how to resolve conflicts (64% vs. 13%) and to take disagreements seriously (78% vs. 26%) than those in unhappy marriages.
It is estimated that Americans spend up to 80% of their waking hours earning, spending, or thinking about money. Is it any wonder that couples disagree about this topic more than any other? There are still distinct differences between happy and unhappy couples regarding money issues. Happy couples agree on how to handle money significantly more often than unhappy couples do (89% vs. 41%). They also have fewer concerns about debts (76% vs. 35%) and the proper amount to save (73% vs. 29%). Clearly, one way to improve the marital relationship is to discuss and agree on relevant financial matters.
Spirituality and faith are powerful dimensions of the human experience. Spiritual beliefs can provide a foundation for the values and behaviors of couples that deepen their love and commitment to one another, particularly during difficult times.
A key factor that distinguishes happy from unhappy couples is how spiritual values and beliefs are expressed (i.e., practiced individually or integrated into the relationship). Most happily married couples (89%) agree on this item compared with only 36% of unhappily married couples. Happy couples are more likely to report that shared spiritual beliefs and values improve their relationship (85% vs. 46%) and make them feel closer (79% vs. 40%).
The sexual relationship acts as the emotional barometer for the overall marital relationship. When a good emotional relationship exists between the partners, the outcome is usually a good sexual relationship.
A major strength for happily married couples is the quality of their sexual relationship. Individuals in happy marriages are much more satisfied with the amount of affection they receive from their partner than unhappy couples (72% vs. 28%). They also agree that their sexual relationship is satisfying and fulfilling (85% vs. 29%), and their partner does not refuse sex in an unfair way (90% vs. 39%). Happy couples report they are far less likely to feel concerned that their partner is not interested in them sexually (88% vs. 37%). Finally, they are more likely to say that they are not worried that their partner may have thought about having an extramarital affair (92% vs. 43%).
Children and Parenting
Paradoxically, parenting can be the most rewarding and the most frustrating responsibility in a couple’s lives. Happy couples are about twice as likely (63%) as unhappy couples (32%) to report that their partners give attention to the marriage as well as the child(ren). They take time each day to share the day’s events and to connect with one another. Satisfaction with how the responsibility of raising children is shared is the most significant issue distinguishing happy from unhappy couples. Happily married couples are more than twice as likely (63%) to be satisfied with how child-rearing and parenting responsibilities are shared than unhappy couples (27%). When it comes to discipline, happy couples (59% vs. 30%) tend to agree more often on the method of correcting their children than unhappy couples. There is no question that the discussion and development of a joint plan for discipline is vital for marital happiness.
The reason for happy marriages is not a secret. Any couple can have a successful marriage if they are willing and determined to incorporate the top ten strengths into their relationship.
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