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How to have a happy marriage by lowering your expectations

For a satisfying marriage, there's one behavior that worse for the relationship than direct confrontation, a new study finds.
/ Source: TODAY

For a more satisfying marriage, skip the sarcasm or snarky remarks and don't get caught up with impossibly high expectations for the relationship.

When a marriage is on solid ground, it's OK to be demanding; but when there are problems, pursuing perfection in the relationship can be destructive, recent research found. That's a logical conclusion — but the researchers also discovered that being passive-aggressive toward a spouse was more damaging than directly confronting a problem.

Marriage boot camp

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Researchers at Florida State University followed 135 newly married couples in Tennessee, interviewing them every 6 months for 4 years. At the beginning, partners were asked to fill out questionnaires designed to determine their level of marital perfectionism, as well as the health of the relationships and their satisfaction with their marriages.

The volunteers were asked, for example, to rate the importance of 12 characteristics on a scale of one to five:

  • Honesty
  • Commitment
  • Caring
  • Trust
  • Support
  • Excitement
  • Challenge
  • Humor
  • Fun
  • Independence
  • Passion

They were also asked to rate how important certain relationship aspects were, such as communication, showing affection, money management, sex, trust and independence.

The couples were also filmed interacting on their own, which gave a sense of how healthy the relationships were.

Say 'I really need your help'

Those recordings gave the researcher a key insight: direct confrontation was far better for a marriage than indirect hostility, also known as passive aggression.

Examples include "sarcasm, mind-reading and hostile jokes," says James McNulty, a professor in the department of psychology at Florida State University.

Passive aggression "essentially, is a tendency to display hostility and unpleasantness without being clear to the partner about the source of that hostility or how to address the problem," he says.

Such as: "I really wish I had some help." Or, "whatever." Or saying nothing.

"Direct hostility, on the other hand, can be useful when people face serious problems that are controllable and have partners who are not already motivated to address those problems," says McNulty.

So, the directly hostile person will complain about a specific relationship issue, which then gives the partner a chance to fix the problem.

Such as: "I really need your help."

Partners who had troubled marriages, while scoring high in what they expected from their relationship, tended to be the least satisfied and happy. Those who had relatively healthy marriages and had high standards, tended to be the happiest.

“This is the key point,” McNulty says. “High standards were good for some but bad for others.”

High standards aren't going to work in a marriage if partners have poor communication skills, a lot of conflict, or little time to devote to the relationship, McNulty says.

Eli Finkel, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, calls the new study "terrific." The findings show that high standards in a marriage are a "high-risk" approach and can be dangerous if there are already problems in the relationship.

The secrets to a solid marriage

Be realistic, flexible, work at it — and lower your standards for a while if you're dealing with one of life's rough patches, says McNulty.

“New parents, for example, will be stressed, and their marriages may suffer somewhat during the transition to parenthood,” he explains. “But if they realize that this is normal and OK, they may not be as disappointed and troubled when it happens.”

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And remember that marriages can be successful without being perfect.

“Successful marriages are not that rare,” McNulty says. “Ultra-successful marriages are more rare. Perfect marriages are extremely rare, if they even exist.”

This was originally published in March, 2016