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Understanding Marital Satisfaction

Updated on February 26, 2020

Marriage has been described as the most important and fundamental human relationship because it provides the primary structure for establishing a family relationship. Although marriage seems to be a highly desirable relationship, statistics indicate that marital satisfaction is not easily achieved. The high rates of divorce bear testimony to this fact. The way the spouses think about and respond to each other is a product of broader forces that affect marriages and intimate relationships.

Many studies indicate that people are generally happier and healthier when they are married. A good marriage provides individuals with a sense of meaning and identity in their lives. On the other hand, it has been generally observed that every year the average couple loses a little spark in their relationship.

One sociological study of marital satisfaction at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Penn State University kept track of more than 2,000 married people over 17 years. Average marital happiness fell sharply in the first 10 years and then entered a slow decline.

Marital satisfaction is a mental state that reflects the perceived benefits of marriage to a particular person. The greater the perceived benefits are the more satisfied one is with the marriage and with the marriage partner.

Marital satisfaction is a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon. There are individual characteristics that lead to marital satisfaction over time. However, not all marital satisfaction decreases in a linear way - a slow, steady decrease but may include more dramatic decreases at times or may even increase.

In a large number of marriages, the marital satisfaction follows a U-shaped trajectory over time. Such couples begin their marriages satisfied; this satisfaction somewhat wanes over the years but resurfaces to newlywed levels after many years together.

The factors which influence or contribute to marital satisfaction may differ across cultures. Marital satisfaction depends on the factors that influence it presently.

"That is what marriage really means: helping one another to reach the full status of being persons, responsible and autonomous beings, who do not run away from life."

- Paul Tournier

Factors influencing marital satisfaction –

Personality characteristics –

Personality refers to individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. Marital satisfaction depends on the personality characteristics of the spouse to a certain extent. Personality is often gauged by five main traits: extraversion or introversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience.

The personality characteristics of each spouse contribute greatly to the relationship, culminating in satisfying marriage or its ending in divorce.

Mate value –

Mate value in general depends on the desirability of a partner, which comprises of a variety of characteristics including physical attractiveness, intelligence and personality. Marriages, in which there is a discrepancy of mate value between the partners, are marriages in which both partners are more likely to be unfaithful, leading to marital dissatisfaction.

The differing mate value between the partners appears as an indicator that he or she might seek a better-matched partner elsewhere.

Interpretation of the behavior of spouse –

It has been found that the individualized measures of daily behavioral events are significantly related to daily measures of marital satisfaction and discriminate distressed from non distressed spouses.

If one’s spouse performs a negative behavior, this may be attributed either to the characteristics of the spouse or to the circumstances surrounding the spouse’s behavior.

In the case of marital satisfaction, attributing negative behavior to characteristics of one’s spouse, rather than to circumstances surrounding his or her behavior, is associated with decreased marital satisfaction as well as marital deterioration. The way people measure behavior appears to be related to how satisfied they are with their marriage. So it is important how to interpret the negative behaviors of each other.

Patterns of interaction –

Patterns of interaction between spouses can affect how satisfied they are with their marriage. In majority of marriages, one partner criticizes or nags the other about the behavior, while the other partner evades the confrontation and discussion. Normally, initial criticism leads to disengagement, which leads to further confrontation and even further disengagement. This pattern has clear implications for marital satisfaction with both parties developing dissatisfaction.

So, both the partners have to change their patterns of interaction about other’s negative behavior by avoiding negative criticism or nagging.

Mate guarding and jealous behavior –

Men and women often attempt to prevent another person from encroaching on their marriage by performing mate-guarding behaviors. These mate-guarding behaviors include monopolizing the partner’s time, threatening or punishing infidelity and being emotionally manipulative.

Because the precise nature of the adaptive problems confronted by the sexes differed, men and women evolved corresponding differences in mate guarding behaviors. Behavioral output of mate guarding range from vigilance to violence.

Marriages, in which one or both partners frequently indulge in these costly guarding behaviors, are more often dissatisfied marriages.

Infidelity –

In marital relationships, exclusivity expectations are commonly assumed, although they are not always met. When they are not met, it leads to far reaching consequences. The form and extent of these consequences are often dependent on the gender of the person indulging in infidelity.

Thus, the more likely one’s partner is to be unfaithful, the less satisfied one is with his or her marriage and marriage partner.

Marital abuse –

It is closely linked with marital satisfaction. Individuals involved in physically, mentally or emotionally abusive relationships are more likely to be dissatisfied with their marriage than are individuals not involved in abusive relationships.

Children –

A child drastically changes the marital context. Marital satisfaction is influenced by and has influences on children.

Research has found that parenthood hastens marital decline, even among relatively satisfied couples who select themselves into this transition but planning status and pre-pregnancy marital satisfaction generally protect marriages from these declines.

In other words, parenthood makes a marriage less happy but more likely to last. In addition, marital strife causes well-functioning differences between children who come from divorced homes and children who do not.

Performance of joint religious activities –

Research has indicated that religious commitment and religious practice are vital for a happy married life, and strengthen and promote marital satisfaction.

Furthermore, the perceptions of the sacredness of the marriage may also promote marital satisfaction.

The bottom line –

A good marriage is one of the life-factors most strongly and consistently associated with happiness. Good relationships make people happy because a dependable companionship is a basic human need. It is worth knowing that marital satisfaction can be increased by the partners involved by understanding the factors, which influence it, thereby enhancing their happiness.

References -

  1. Johnson, P. L., & O'Leary, K. D. (1996). Behavioral components of marital satisfaction: An individualized assessment approach. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(2), 417–423.
  2. Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2002 Dec;23 Suppl 4:23-9. Human mate guarding Buss DM.
  3. BehavSci (Basel). 2019 Mar; 9(3): 30. Published online 2019 Mar 20. doi: 10.3390/bs9030030
  4. Marital Satisfaction across the Transition to Parenthood

    Erika Lawrence, Rebecca J. Cobb, Alexia D. Rothman, Michael T. Rothman, and Thomas N. Bradbury


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