Rocky Relationship? Ignore the Common WisdomSay you or I were having problems with our relationship and we headed off, with our respective partners, to a relationship counselor. How would they advise us to improve our marital satisfaction?

Research suggests that people who are satisfied with their relationships tend to behave more positively towards each other. They expect good things from their partner, avoid blaming each other for mistakes, approach problem-solving positively and forgive each other for those little slip-ups.

Quite naturally, then, a counselor would encourage us to try and cultivate these same positive processes in our relationships.

But what if, for some couples, these positive processes actually make the situation worse, not better, leading to lower marital satisfaction?

That’s the suggestion made by James K. McNulty in a new paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science (McNulty, 2010).

McNulty followed hundreds of newlywed couples over their first two to four years of marriage, asking them about their satisfaction, their expectations, their interpretations, how they solved problems and whether they forgave each other for slip-ups.

Across four studies McNulty and colleagues challenge some of the received wisdom about what makes for a happy partnership when the relationship is more rocky.

1. Do expect problems

What we used to think: People who expect better, get better. If we approach marital problems with a positive mental attitude, we can get through them, leading to a better outcome.

What the data show: When McNulty and Karney (2004) tested this idea they found that this wasn’t true for everyone. For those people who weren’t good at solving their marital problems, they were better off setting their expectations for the relationship lower.

Why? People with weaker problem-solving skills are less likely to be disappointed when expectations are lower. In the long term this may lead to higher satisfaction.

2. Don’t ignore the signals

What we used to think: It’s good for people to make positive interpretations about their relationships. E.g. he didn’t forget to buy your ice cream on the way home out of spite; he just had a heavy day and wanted to get home quickly.

What the data show: In 169 couples followed over 4 years, McNulty et al. (2008) found that those who faced the most severe problems were better to make less-positive attributions about their partners.

Why? Sometimes bad or disrespectful behavior signals a problem in the relationship that needs to be addressed. Papering over the cracks means they don’t get addressed, leading to lower marital satisfaction. Sometimes a signal shouldn’t be ignored.

3. You are to blame

What we used to think:  When discussing your problems, try to avoid blame and recrimination.

What the data show: Once again, in a reverse to the received wisdom, McNulty and Russell (2010) found that in over 200 newlywed couples, for those having the most severe relationship problems, it was better for relationship satisfaction to react more negatively towards your partner.

Why? Blame, recrimination and negative feelings are all powerful motivators. If we really want our partners to change, they have to feel bad. It may be painful now, but it will be worth it in the long run.

4. Actually, I don’t forgive you

What we used to think: Forgive and forget.

What the data show: When McNulty (2008) followed 72 couples over 2 years, for those participants who had the most troublesome partners, it was better for relationship satisfaction not to forgive them.

Why? Forgiving someone often leads them to feel less guilty about their behavior and, consequently, provides fewer disincentives for them to behave the same way in the future and less reason to make a change.

Cruel to be kind

So, although a lot of modern relationship advice boils down to keeping positive, this isn’t always the best way to go.

When things are dreamy, being positive is probably good advice. But this research suggests that rocky relationships can benefit from negative processes. For those with more serious problems better advice may be to accept the negative in the short-term in the hope of harmony over the long-term.



View Comments / Leave a Comment

This post currently has 17 comments.
You can read the comments or leave your own thoughts.

    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 14 Jul 2010
    Published on All rights reserved.

APA Reference
Dean, J. (2010). Rocky Relationship? Ignore the Common Wisdom. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 22, 2015, from


Recent Comments
  • kimmer56: My husband lost his I.D. a year ago in Jackson Wy. He was suppose to be in Sugarland, Texas. I found out...
  • Risa: Bill- I could not agree with you more. You state it so eloquently.
  • Mary Walters: Depression is a really dangerous illness and it must be cured! I was in situation like the one...
  • doris: Ho my goodness my eyes are now open wide to the relationship that i have been in for 8 years everything that i...
  • Learnthehardway: Terrible that people are like that. My ex husband was/is one combined with a nasty vindictive...
Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

Find a Therapist
Enter ZIP or postal code

Users Online: 7271
Join Us Now!