Marital Satisfaction… What is it?

The 1990s was a decade of extensive and impressive marital satisfaction research. I’ve been reading the macro-analytic overview of this decade of investigation by Bradbury, Fincham, and Beach (2000).

Their summary describes two overarching research themes on marital satisfaction; the interpersonal processes that operate within marriages, and the broader social and cultural contexts that say you can’t always get what you want.

It seems to confirm some of Gottman’s more critical findings. And Mick Jagger’s too.

Research metrics, when it comes to marital satisfaction, rely on a felt sense of overall satisfaction, and are self-reported states of mind. And people aren’t always entirely reliable when they’re doing this or signing that.

Self-reporting as a research tool, is not without its problems.

marital satisfaction

But for certain kinds of research, it’s all we have. This meta-research review on satisfaction is also limited by its focus on behavior over emotion.

Once they started poking around the issue of how emotion was examined in their meta-research, their findings became more contradictory.

The behavioral data were more straightforward and informative.

Another limitation of this research is that it is an American meta-study, and may lose utility when culture and ethnicity adds a thicker layer of complexity.

As usual, I am showing my science-based bias for using the researcher’s original term “marital” over the perhaps more modern and politically correct “relational.”

Think “committed” as the fundamental idea.

Satisfaction Builds on Behaviors

  • Early Empathy Means that Time is on Your Side. Couples Therapy Inc. Certified Gottman Therapist and Master Trainer Dr. Scott Wolfe conducted a study on marital satisfaction for his doctoral dissertation.

His research with 60 couples indicated that the degree of mutual empathy that was experienced during the first year of marriage was predictive of later reports of emotional satisfaction. The same findings were replicated in the third year of marriage as well.

  • Support Behavior. Supporting your partner through thick and thin is highly correlated with not only relationship satisfaction, but also with higher levels of physical health. We know that being on the wrong end of contempt can wear down the immune system, but if you’re cherished and held in high regard is also a measurable boost to health. This is yet another confirmation that we want to the following: “will you be there for me? Can I count on you? Will you put my needs on par with your own?” These are the fundamental questions of intimate human bonds.
  • The Negative Feedback Loop. One of the classic signatures of couples who can’t get no satisfaction are their negative feedback loops. This is where you start off commenting on the smelly litter box and wind up in a hotel for three days.  The problem with negative feedback loops is that they can eventually intensify into hostile protests against fear, abandonment, doom, and gloom.
  • In couples therapy, each couple learns to carefully unpack how they do their own particular Demon Dance or Protest Polka (which is couples therapist slang for what our more careful research colleagues call these negative feedback loops).
  • Approach-Avoid Pattern. Another tell-tale sign of a couple with no satisfaction is the typical pursuer-distancer, aka demand-withdraw escalation cycle, aka approach-avoid pattern: you wonder out-loud about going out to dinner, while he puts on headphones and cranks up the Stones.

This pattern has an annoying number of different names in the literature, but they mean the same thing; one of you is chasing the other, and one of you is trying not to get caught under their thumb. We often see this demand/withdraw pattern along a female/male gender divide, but it’s not clinically helpful to think in such banalities. Men can demand, too, especially when they feel like a beast of burden.

Thinking Makes It So

  • Keep those Positive Reframes!  “She’s not opinionated. She just knows more about this than anyone else.” He’s not rude. He just doesn’t suffer fools easily.”
  • Marital satisfaction has more to do with positive re-frames than a preoccupation with accuracy.  Maybe she’s blunt. Or perhaps he is married to an overbearing, opinionated woman. Who cares? By whose standards? It’s the eye of the beholder that matters. Satisfied partners see the best in each other and tend to excuse the worst. They have each others’ back… 24/7.
  • Why They Do the Things They Do. Humans are story-telling animals. When our partners do something that impacts us negatively, we need to know why! Patterns of Attribution are the stories we come up with to explain our partner’s behavior. When we are in what Gottman calls a Positive Sentiment Override, we continue to look for the good in our spouse, and our Patterns of Attribution are forbearing and forgiving.
  • Avoiding Inflexibility. Happy couples are not only forbearing; they are also quite flexible. Interactional patterns of flexibility and cooperation were a frequent theme in these studies.
  • It’s Getting Better All The Time.  Research also reports that if we scan our recent memories of our partner, and we feel an overall sense of definite improvement, our satisfaction level gets an upward tick.

Can You Get Satisfaction from Your Relationship?

If you asked most people how they would assess their marital satisfaction, they’d probably be pretty comfortable with some sort of sliding scale-like, for example, from 1 to 10—another case where the facts from the research are counter-intuitive.

marital satisfaction

However, some of the research suggests that our felt sense of marital satisfaction has more of a Mick Jagger sensibility.

Mick was right.

Either we get satisfaction, or we can’t get no satisfaction. And you try..and you try.. and you try…

Research says that when it comes to marital satisfaction, we’d like to believe that we think in degrees of nuance. But in reality, we don’t.

So why does our felt sense of satisfaction, what Gottman calls the Positive or Negative Sentiment Override, function more like an on/off switch? You remember when she was hot…. but now she’s so cold. It’s all over now. Why?

Probably because you stopped being a knight in shining armor, coming to her emotional rescue.

Researchers tell us that the specific cognitive processes critical to marital satisfaction have a tendency to flow in self-reinforcing feedback loops. That means that once you start to become dissatisfied, for example, by changing your “story” about your partner’s annoying behavior (remember researchers call them attributional patterns), you may also start to believe that all your love was in vain. In other words, the loop goes from bad to worse.

Or if you’re in Positive Sentiment Override, when you’re with your spouse, wild horses couldn’t drag you away!

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Bradbury T. N., Fincham, F. D., Beach, R.H., (2000). Research on the Nature and Determinants of Marital Satisfaction: A Decade in Review Journal of Marriage and the Family 62 (November 2000): 964-980.

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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