This is a new entry in our series to equip engaged and newlywed couples – and anyone else trying to create a great marriage. Based on more than 18 years of research and 12 nationally representative studies with more than 40,000 men and women, these articles identify simple (but essential) habits for highly happy marriages. And this research is newly recovered from the vaults! Share it with those getting married! *
I recently combed through research files from almost ten years ago – our study of what makes the happiest couples so happy, for the book The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages. Due to space constraints we couldn’t include everything we found, so we covered just 12 surprises in the book.
But, there was a 13th finding, one that I’m sharing here for the first time. Perhaps now more than ever before, this secret is vital to creating a great relationship. My hope is that it will help many newlyweds – and everyone else! – avoid a common conflict trap and build connection instead.
But first, some background: I noticed a recurring dynamic when we first started interviewing and surveying the couples in the happiest marriages (in the book we call these the “highly happy” couples, and contrast them to the “mostly happy” couples and “so-so or struggling” couples). Originally, this dynamic just amused me. But then I started to realize: no wait… this is important.
The happiest couples, like everyone else, have conflict. So I would ask them, “take me through your last disagreement.” I wanted to know how they handled a conflict, hurt feelings, and so on. Listen in on one rather representative answer to that question:
Him: Our last big disagreement? Sure … let me think for a second.
Her: Oh gosh, we’ve got plenty. We just had a big brouhaha not that long ago. Um … what was that?
Him: I’m trying to remember. What was it about? Was it the kids … ?
Her: (Pause) Well, there are plenty of examples. What about the thing with your folks’ party?
Him: Yes! Well … that wasn’t really a conflict, though. At least not in the end.
Her: You’re right. (Pause) I’m trying to think of something!
(They look at each other. Both laugh.)
Him: I’m still struggling to find an example. I can’t even right now ballpark what our major disagreements have been over.
Me: You mean you don’t have issues … ?
Him: Oh yes. We sure do.
Her: But I guess we don’t remember them.
This dynamic didn’t occur with all the happy couples I interviewed and surveyed, but it was extremely common. And it turns out that this little interchange holds a clue to a larger, vitally important truth.
You see, although the happiest couples all had issues of legitimate concern (the couple above eventually did remember substantial areas of disagreement), they were in the habit of letting things go. This “13th secret” has vast implications for anyone who wants a happy marriage, especially in the hyper-polarized world we live in.
There seem to be two major ways this habit plays out in practice.
Action #1: In the moment of conflict, the happiest spouses try to defer and let it go
During a conflict on day-to-day issues that they care about (not major life choices), those in the happiest marriages are far more likely to let things go or defer to the other person, instead of trying to win the argument, getting things just the way they want them, or insisting “this is the way it should be done.”
We independently surveyed each spouse about these day-to-day conflicts and asked, “If the two of you are at odds and cannot resolve it fairly soon, how likely are you as a couple to let it go for the sake of peace?” The Highly Happy spouses were twice as likely as struggling spouses to say they would be “very likely” to let things go that they cared about.
I interviewed one couple that had come very close to divorce and had clawed their way back to a much better place. The wife told me, “We went through a terrible, terrible period in our marriage, and a lot of it was that I felt like there was just a way things should be done. I thought my way was always ‘the’ way to do it, which of course is crazy now that I look back. I broke the habit because a counselor advised us to ask each other ‘on a scale of 1 to 10 how important is this issue to you?’ And I realized that I was insisting on ‘my way’ on things that were only a three to me, but were an eight to him! So now, anything five or below I let go. I’m trying to work my way up to a seven. And he’s doing the same for me.”
Action #2: Over time, the happiest spouses try to forgive and forget
In another important trend, whether or not the happiest couples were successful at “letting things go” in the middle of a conflict, they did try to do so over time. They built habits of forgiving and forgetting. As in the dialogue shared above, these couples actually “let it go” enough that they often couldn’t even remember what their issues were without significant effort!
The result of this pattern was a long-term and beautiful benefit to the relationship. In our survey, the happiest spouses were ten times more likely than struggling or “mostly happy” spouses to say that the “how likely are you to let little things go” question didn’t even apply since they (the happiest spouses) rarely got to the point of the conflict escalating to begin with.
Our research supports what scripture has told us all along – that “it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.” (Proverbs 19:11 NIV)
Getting there is simpler than you think
For someone in a high-conflict relationship, the idea of being able to let things go may seem completely unfathomable – or even wrong. You may be thinking, But isn’t setting aside conflicts unhealthy? Or, Those Highly Happy couples must just have some relationship superpowers that we don’t have! But neither of those things is true!
Remember, everyone has disagreements. We are all imperfect people. The issue isn’t whether we have the disagreements, the issue is how we handle them when we do. And, as you’ll see in Part 2 of this set, it is simpler than you think to learn how to handle our day-to-day disagreements in a way that protects the relationship above the issue at hand.
*To discover the 12 other habits that highly happy married couples cultivate – and to move your marriage from blah to bliss – consider my book, The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages.
This article was also published at Patheos.
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- What Hollywood Gets Wrong about Sex– and What Couples Can Do Right
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