What Makes A Marriage Work

What can make a marriage work is surprisingly simple. Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. Rather than creating a climate of disagreement and resistance, they embrace each other’s needs. When addressing a partner’s request, their motto tends to be a helpful “Yes, and . . .” rather than “Yes, but . . .” This positive attitude not only allows them to maintain but also to increase the sense of romance, play, fun, adventure, and learning together that are at the heart of any long-lasting love affair. They have what I call an emotionally intelligent marriage.

Emotional intelligence has become widely recognized as an important predictor of a child’s success later in life. The more in touch with feelings and the better able a child is to understand and get along with others, the sunnier that child’s future, whatever his or her academic IQ. The same is true for spouses. The more emotionally intelligent a couple—the better able they are to understand, honor, and respect each other and their marriage—the more likely that they will indeed live happily ever after. Just as parents can teach their children emotional intelligence, this is also a skill that couples can learn. As simple as it sounds, developing this ability can keep husband and wife on the positive side of the divorce odds.

One of the saddest reasons a marriage dies is that neither spouse recognizes its value until it is too late. Only after the papers have been signed, the furniture divided, and separate apartments rented do the exes realize how much they really gave up when they gave up on each other. Too often a good marriage is taken for granted rather than given the nurturing and respect it deserves and desperately needs. Some people may think that getting divorced or languishing in an unhappy marriage is no big deal—they may even consider it a simple fact of modern life. But there’s now plenty of evidence documenting just how harmful both divorce and an unhappy relationship can be for all involved.

We now know that an unhappy marriage can increase your chances of getting sick by roughly 35 percent and even shorten your life by an average of four to eight years. The flip side: people who are happily married live longer, healthier lives than either divorced people or those who are unhappily married. Scientists know for certain that these differences exist, but we are not yet sure why. Part of the answer may simply be that in an unhappy marriage people experience chronic, diffuse physiological arousal—in other words, they feel physically stressed and usually emotionally overwrought as well. This puts added wear and tear on the body and mind, which can present itself in any number of physical ailments, including high blood pressure and heart disease, and in a host of psychological troubles, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, psychosis, violence, and suicide.

Not surprisingly, happily married couples have a far lower rate of such maladies. They also tend to be more health-conscious than others. Researchers theorize that spouses keep after each other to have regular checkups, take medicine, eat nutritiously, and so on. But there is growing evidence that a good marriage may also keep you healthier by directly benefiting your immune system, which spearheads the body’s defenses against illness. Researchers have known for about two decades that divorce can depress the immune system’s function. Theoretically, this decline in the system’s ability to fight foreign invaders could leave you open to more infectious diseases and cancers. Now we have found that the opposite may also be true. Not only do happily married people avoid this drop in immune function, but their immune systems may even be getting an extra boost.

When we assessed the immune-system responses of the fifty couples who stayed overnight in the Love Lab, we found a striking difference between those who were very satisfied with their marriages and those whose emotional response to each other was neutral or who were unhappy. Specifically, we used blood samples from each subject to test the response of certain of their white blood cells—the immune system’s major defense weapons. In general, happily married men and women showed a greater proliferation of these white blood cells when exposed to foreign invaders than did the other subjects.

When a marriage goes sour, husband and wife are not the only ones to suffer—the children do, too. In a study I conducted of sixty-three preschoolers, those being raised in homes where there was great marital hostility had chronically elevated levels of stress hormones compared with the other children studied. We don’t know what the long-term repercussions of this stress will be for their health. But we do know that this biological indication of extreme stress was echoed in their behavior. We followed them through age fifteen and found that, compared with other children their age, these kids suffered far more from truancy, depression, peer rejection, behavioral problems (especially aggression), low achievement at school, and even school failure.

One important message of these findings is that it is not wise to stay in a bad marriage for the sake of your children. It is clearly harmful to raise kids in a home that is consumed by hostility. A peaceful divorce is preferable to endless marital warfare. Unfortunately, many divorces are not peaceful. Too often there is mutual enmity between the parents that continues after the breakup. For that reason, children of divorce often fare just as poorly as those caught in the crossfire of a miserable marriage.