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Surprising Findings on What Makes a Happy, Stable Marriage

happy coupleRecently, I had the pleasure of interviewing psychologist Terri Orbuch, Ph.D, about her book 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great. (Stay tuned for the article on Psych Central shortly!)

Since 1986, Orbuch has followed the same 373 couples to investigate what leads to marriage happiness and stability long term. Among a slew of interesting findings, her study yielded two surprising results, which I had to share with readers. (The article includes details on the study.)

1. Focus on what is working, not on what isn’t. We often hear about the importance of working through negative issues in relationships. Like Orbuch writes in her book, it’s common for experts to ask couples to consider what’s going wrong in their relationship.

While addressing problems in your relationship is critical, strengthening the positives may be even more so. According to Orbuch’s study, couples who “focus[ed] and talk[ed] about the positives were the happiest and most likely to be together over time.”

She writes in her book that “…introducing positive behaviors into the marriage is a far more effective way to produce meaningful and lasting change.” As Orbuch says, focusing on fortifying what’s going well “motivates us to continue to move forward.”

It’s important for couples to reduce problems, but Orbuch writes that “if you have a decent marriage to begin with, it is so much easier and more effective to focus on making small, positive behavioral changes.”

2. Do sweat the small stuff. Most of us are familiar with the saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” In fact, many of us have probably read the books on putting life into perspective and not mulling over the minutia.

But the opposite was true in Orbuch’s study. Just as she found that simple and consistent changes — like doing something nice for your partner — can lead to long-term happiness, they also can take it away.

As she writes in her book, it isn’t the “big events” that damage a relationship, but “the seemingly minor everyday challenges,” such as “your partner doesn’t listen to you,” “you snap at each other” or “there are little squabbles.”

When tragedy strikes, couples typically band together. However, small things can “accumulate over time and become huge challenges,” she says. And then these bigger issues “start to tear away at a couple’s happiness.”

It can start off small enough. For instance, he doesn’t put the dishes away or she interrupts you when you’re talking. Over time, these small issues can go from “Oh, she just loves to talk,” or “He just doesn’t like doing the dishes to “He’s not respecting me” or “She doesn’t love me.”

Also, once the problem becomes so big, it can be tougher to address the underlying issue.

In her book, Orbuch emphasizes the importance of “setting short-term, small, achievable goals” and looking “for brief moments of connection,” such as sharing a laugh with your spouse or planting a passionate kiss on your partner.

Are you surprised by Orbuch’s results? What do you think makes a happy marriage?

To learn more about Terri Orbuch, Ph.D, check out her website and sign up for her free newsletter here.

Photo by Michael Coghlan, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Surprising Findings on What Makes a Happy, Stable Marriage

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Surprising Findings on What Makes a Happy, Stable Marriage. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 15 Feb 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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