Say 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.