“The secret of a happy marriage remains a secret. “
— Henny Youngman
But a new study published in a recent issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology may shed some light.
Positive marriages are those determined to have resiliency, courage and strength of perseverance to endure, with the added virtue of partners being able to accept or forgive each other when the feces hits the oscillator. The usual transgressions that a typical marriage encounters assure that every couple will be tested, but statistics show that not all pass the forgiveness test.
Once a betrayal has occurred and trust has been broken, forgiveness, or lack thereof, will determine the couple’s future. Experts report that in the United States, the marriage failure rate increases with the number of tries: Half of first marriages fail. That increases to nearly two thirds of second marriages, and three quarters of third marriages. This daunting data demonstrates that learning how to forgive may be the most important skill for sustained marital happiness.
A positive nod of forgiveness toward your partner early in the marriage usually helps when the kids and the mortgage and the careers nibble away at marital bliss. But if you think your partner should burn in hell because of what he or she has done, the stress is likely to remain with you. To quote the Buddha: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Modern research confirms this truth. Studies have demonstrated that an inability to forgive is associated with depression and anxiety.
When it comes to research on forgiveness, generally women are more forgiving than men, but those studies didn’t ferret out the marriage factor. Once matrimony is in the equation the capacity for forgiveness shifts in favor of the husbands. But why?
The premise behind the study was to look at the prevention possibility of forgiveness. Understanding how recently married couples forgave each other was particularly important because learning how to forgive early establishes a pattern of correction. Newlyweds who learn to forgive aren’t putting out a fire; they’re installing a sprinkler system. They are building a foundation of mutual acceptance and understanding that can save them later on. Since trust and reconciliation are the vehicles for rebuilding a ruptured connection, these researchers focused exclusively on recently married couples and their assessment of being forgiven. The more positive and forgiving early attributions are, the greater the likelihood of positive attributions throughout the marriage.
In understanding forgiveness the researchers referred to two types: Decisional forgiveness occurs when an individual makes a decision about how to act toward his or her spouse. This results in controlling behavior, but may not necessarily involve altering cognition, motivation or emotion. The decision is in how to act, not in how to think. Emotional forgiveness replaces negative emotions, such as anger and resentment, with positive emotions such as compassion and empathy. In this second type no explicit expression of forgiveness to the offender is required. Changes in behavior may come, but the big shift is in how one thinks.
Among other things, the researchers looked at self-report measures that indicated that both husbands and wives thought the men were more forgiving. Additionally, wives thought their husbands had more forgiveness toward them than husbands felt from their wives.
Yes, dear, it’s true.
At the core of this finding is the gender difference in the strategy used to forgive. Women are more specific in their interpretation of marital satisfaction and evaluate each event. Men are influenced by an overall attitude and generalize their sentiments. For men, marital satisfaction is highest early in marriage and is directly related to higher levels of forgiveness. Women’s connection between marital quality and forgiveness is more complex. If the marriage is generally good, husbands will overlook and forgive a transgression; wives seem less willing to do so.
The big question for future researchers will be whether this finding endures in a marriage, or if the forgiveness factor shifts back again in favor of women.
Mr. Youngman may have been right, but we’re working on it.