Marriage Trivia Question: Which leads to more satisfaction in marriage? When your spouse listens and comforts you during a bad time? Or when they show their delight when you share some good news? Or even . . . when they listen to a negative situation and try to find the positive in it?
Many of us might instinctively think that comforting our partner in pain has got to be most important, right? After all, it shows we care, it makes our spouse feel loved during a difficult time, and so on. No matter what, we probably assume, we should not risk alienating our spouse by showing positive reactions to negative situations.
Listening and empathizing is important, of course. But some surprising research has found that positive emotional responses toward our spouse—including about a negative experience—may have much more impact on relationship satisfaction in the long run.
So take a look at these fascinating findings and make some immediate adjustments for better marriages!
The Research: What do we respond to more strongly?
In an intriguing 2015 study out of Canada, researchers assessed the marital satisfaction of older couples (married 40 years on average). They then measured the neural brain activity of the wives as they watched their husbands on a video, showing emotion about a shared marital experience—either a negative memory or a positive one. But the researchers were sneaky. The video was intentionally mismarked so that it was opposite to the men’s non-verbal signals. For instance, a husband might be positive and smiling about a happy memory, but the label on the video said he was talking about a negative memory or experience.
Essentially, the women were watching emotional responses that were designed to not match their own feelings.
The researchers wanted to see if these long-married wives demonstrated more neural responses (more impact) of a positive emotion when remembering a negative experience, or vice versa, and whether that related to marriage quality. Ultimately, they were looking for whether responses to emotional disconnect are in any way impacted by a couple’s relationship satisfaction.
And boy did they find it. The greatest neural activity arose when a woman watched her husband showing positive emotion. And this was the case even when she thought he was recalling a difficult marriage experience! Furthermore, these reactions were even stronger in the happier marriages.
So what does this mean for us? There is a clear big-picture reality, and a clear push toward a very practical action step.
The Big Picture: In marriage, viewing things positively creates a positive cycle—and happier marriages
It appears that we are far more strongly activated and drawn in by our spouse’s positivity. Our brains sort of “discount” negative emotions. As the Canadian researchers put it (in their science-speak way!), the women’s brains (especially among the happy wives) “dampen[ed] neural responsiveness to a spouse’s negative [emotions].” Further, the women also judged their husband’s emotions much more by “positive, rather than negative, nonverbal cues.” Both of those factors existed for women across the spectrum of marital happiness but were stronger among those with greater marital satisfaction.
Other research has found that this type of “positivity impact” holds true for both men and women. A 2006 UCLA study titled “Will you be there for me when things go right?” examined couples’ reactions to positive and negative events on video. It is perhaps not surprising that the researchers found that “feeling understood, validated and cared for during the positive event discussion was strongly and consistently associated with relationship well-being (satisfaction, commitment and love).” What was surprising was that, for the men, only the responses from the positive event discussion projected the well-being of the relationship! For the women, both positive and negative discussion responses projected the well-being of the relationship, but only the positive event discussions estimated relationship well-being for the future.
What do we do as a result of all this?
The Practical Action Step: In marriage, look for opportunities to “rejoice with those who rejoice.”
Most of us have heard the challenge from the Apostle Paul (Romans 12:15) to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Clearly, both are important in friendships, family, community, and marriage. But looking at how God has wired our brains, the clear implication of these two studies (and many others), is to always be looking for opportunities to “rejoice” with your spouse.
There’s an important clarification here: These studies are not saying it’s healthy to try to jolly along an unhappy spouse and try to push aside their feelings. That will certainly backfire and is not what an unhappy spouse needs. But what these studies are saying is that each of us has a power in the life of our spouse that we may not have recognized: that as they share positive news and we get excited with them, we uplift not only them but the marriage.
So friends—listen to your mate. And yes, mourn with them when they mourn—but give special attention to cheering them on and celebrating the good events and experiences that come around.
We all took vows “for better or for worse.” How like God it is to give us such a simple and beautiful way to literally change our brains and our marriages for the better.
This article was also published at Patheos.
Check out our online resource for Shaunti’s research and teachings: SurprisingHope.com.
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