May 12, 2004 -- It's all spelled out in those wedding vows: "For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health ..."You have been warned that once you walk down the aisle, expect bumps in the road ahead.
And new research indicates that if you're a newlywed, the better you're able to expect marriage blips instead of 24/7 bliss, the better your union's chances are to successfully reach that closing line: "So long as you both shall live."
Researchers find that couples are more likely to stay satisfied in their marriage when they enter it with an accurate picture of what awaits them -- even if it's not what they want. In other words, know that round-the-clock "happily ever after" is a fairy tale, and your Prince Charming will likely display some frog-like tendencies, at least on occasion.
How to Handle Those Curveballs
According to a new study in this month's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the key is that your expectations of "ever after" must accurately reflect the abilities -- or lack thereof -- that you and your mate have in handling the relationship curveballs you'll face.
"For some couples, that means lowering expectations, and for others, raising them," researcher and psychologist James McNulty, PhD, of Ohio State University, tells WebMD. "It depends on the skills you have, or don't have, at handling conflict. Marriage satisfaction goes down when a spouse's expectations don't fit with reality."
Let's say your spouse comes home moody because of work hassles. If you think that can suddenly change with a big smooch or nice dinner, your expectations may not jive with reality.
"You need to understand that when a partner is going through stress, your partner will not be perfect," says McNulty. "Many people, and especially newlyweds, expect their relationship will be perfect, even in times of stress. But when it isn't, they become disappointed, and as a result, have more stress and dissatisfaction."
Skills and Expectations Should Match
That can snowball into divorce, which occurred in 17 of the 82 couples that McNulty and colleague Benjamin Karney, PhD, of the University of Florida, followed over their four-year study. The couples, all married less than three months at study start, were first videotaped while talking about an issue of difficulty in their relationship. The researchers then rated the couples' predicted problem-solving skills.
The newlyweds also completed questionnaires that examined their levels of satisfaction in their marriage, their expectations for future satisfaction, and expectations for the way their partners would behave. They also answered questions to assess whether they were more likely to blame their spouses -- and not themselves -- for problems that could arise. Each spouse was then retested every six months.
The bottom line: Spouses who had higher expectations at the beginning of their marriage -- but poor skills to achieve those expectations -- showed steep declines in marital satisfaction over time. Less positive expectations however -- despite poor skills -- predicted a more stable satisfaction with the marriage over time. But that's not to say that all couples need to lower their expectations in order to reach the heights of marital satisfaction.
"It's not about settling for less; it's realizing that sometimes, 'less' occurs and your expectations should reflect how to deal with it accordingly," McNulty tells WebMD. "But unrealistic expectations can go both ways. People can be unrealistically negative, as well. If they expect things to be bad, when they are actually good, they don't take advantage of that. So lowering expectations is not good for everyone."
How Do You Argue?
So how can you determine what you should accurately expect from your mate?
"When you put your partner on a pedestal and think he or she is perfect, that's fine if your partner can accomplish that. But most can't, so there's disappointment. It really comes down to trying to notice the impact that external things have on your spouse's behavior, understanding the ups and downs of life -- and to some extent, being able to predict them."
There's another good reason to polish your crystal ball.
Just three months ago, another finding indicated future divorce rates could be predicted -- with 94% accuracy -- with a mathematical formula based on giving positive or negative numerical scores for actions and expressions displayed while couples argued. When the math was done, researchers found the key to a successful marriage wasn't how often they argue, but how they did it.
That study, based on data of 700 couples over 32 years, showed that using humor, affection, and even understanding nods during arguments five times as often as negative tactics such as eye rolling or sighing was a key marker in whether a couple would stay intact. This research was presented before the American Association for the Advancement of Science at its recent annual meeting by noted marriage researcher John Gottman, PhD, of the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle.
His take-home advice to honing your conflict-settling skills for a longer-lasting marriage: "Basically, in good relationships people pussy-foot around each other. They think about how their partner is going to react before they act or speak."