Researching Romance: The Science Behind Happy Marriages

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[*This article originally appeared in the January-March issue of Inspired Bali. If you’re currently in Bali, I recommend running out and grabbing a copy.]

I am a newlywed. Thank you for your hearty congratulations. And no need to start an office pool to guess the year of our divorce because you will lose.

I met my wife in November of 2012 and we quickly fell in love. Five months later, we were engaged. Our friends were happy for us, although a few raised their eyebrows, suspicious that we should move so quickly. “When you know, you know,” we told them.

Apparently, we don’t know squat. So say the good men and women of science. What my wife and I took for love was merely the chemical equivalent of a Jägerbomb at the bar—two parts dopamine, one part adrenaline, chased down with a shot of serotonin. This was the rush we felt when falling in love. In the first few months, couples can easily overlook their differences in opinion and behaviour because they are in the throes of chemical attraction. Somehow, pack-a-day smoking habits and other non-starters seem trivial when placed next to the majestic beauty of the greatest love the world has ever known.

“When you know, you know,” we told them. Apparently, we don’t know squat.

But just like the day after a binge drink, these chemicals come with a hangover. That’s okay because our brains feed us with the emotional equivalent of Tylenol and a greasy breakfast, dishing out oxytocin and vasopressin to keep us around after the “honeymoon” phase is over. We get oxytocin when we kiss, hug and have sex. The only problem is that we tend to stop doing these things as often when we realize that our Prince Charming’s refusal to floss is not adorable but is, in fact, disgusting. When the initial rush of chemical attraction subsides, we simply don’t want to be as cuddly as before, so we give less oxytocin and vasopressin to ourselves.

This is why, while chemicals can kickstart a romance, they aren’t reliable for sustaining a relationship over the long-term. Romantic love usually fades into friendship and companionship. Most couples manage to forge a friendship because they have shared beliefs, which is probably how they met each other in the first place. Studies show that couples who share religious beliefs are less likely to divorce, which relates to sociologist Emile Durkheim’s notion that religion is an integrative force. As the authors of the study “The Impact of Religious Homogeneity on the Rate of Divorce in the United States” put it:

Participation in religious communities subordinates personal desires while enhancing collective goals, thus promoting stability (Larson and Goltz 1989). Both partners regularly attending religious services and claiming a same or similar religious affiliation are key elements in decreasing the likelihood of divorce (Call and Heaton 1997). Studies of religious homogamy suggest that having a partner with the same or doctrinally similar religious beliefs increases marital stability.

Unfortunately, my partner and I are not on the same page of the scriptures. Her beliefs are of the yogic variety. Mine are in the “none of the above” category. So, not only are we less chemically attracted to each other than we used to be, but our spiritual differences also make it harder for us to transition into companionship, increasing our chances of divorce. The study does not indicate whether these couples with “collective goals” are any happier than others, only that they divorce less.

Even though my wife and I do not share a religion, we do have a collective goal, and it is a bit more ambitious than merely not wanting to get divorced—we want to be happy. This, we thought, was a testable hypothesis. Like most couples from our background, we decided to move in together before we ever got engaged. If we could be happy living together outside of marriage, surely we could be happy living together once we got into it. After all, in either situation, there are bills to pay, dogs to feed and houses to clean.

According to Tina B. Tessina, PhD, author of “Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage”, research shows that couples that live together before getting married are actually more likely to divorce. The suggested reason is that many couples move in together for practical reasons rather than due to romantic commitment. Those bills are easier to pay when you’re splitting them, plus you have someone else to watch the dog. Couples who move in together out of convenience often find themselves taking the “logical” next step of getting married because it is easier than disentangling from a shared life. Cohabitation ceases to be a bargain when you are also splitting the therapy bills from an unhappy relationship.

Are my wife and I married because we followed up an initial dose of love chemicals with a hasty decision to save on our electricity costs? And is our union destined for not just unhappiness, but, gasp, divorce? Maybe, but I don’t think so. And for once, there is scientific research to back up my optimism.

Are my wife and I married because we followed up an initial dose of love chemicals with a hasty decision to save on our electricity costs?

Dr. John Gottman is a psychologist known for his ability to predict with over 90% accuracy whether a couple will be together five years in the future. According to research conducted with his partner, Dr. Julie Gottman, successful relationships have nothing to do with similarity in worldview or opinions, or somehow squeezing out a few extra drops of dopamine. Instead, the indicators of a successful marriage are mutual respect and trust.

The Gottmans posit the quite reasonable hypothesis that people interact to get attention. Giving attention to your partner is a sign of respect. Asking for attention and receiving it builds trust that your partner cares about your needs. So, if you are trying to get attention and your partner responds by making eye contact, asking questions, or even making a joke, you will stay together longer than you would if you are greeted with sneering, eye rolling or a blank stare. It’s that simple. Creating a lasting relationship boils down to treating your partner with the same respect you want to receive. You don’t have to be a pair of blissed-out, non-cohabititing Christians to know that’s one rule worth following.

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5 Comments Researching Romance: The Science Behind Happy Marriages

  1. Mary Benson

    Nicely written article, Jeff! Congrats on having it in print! One thing the Gottmans also say that has really stayed with me is that a person will stay with a partner who sneers at them longer than with a partner who gives no response at all to them. I would have thought the opposite.

    Anyway, dopamine or no, marriage can be a fun adventure. I feel so lucky to have gotten it right second time around! My limited data set (Norm, his brother, and their dad) tells me that Benson men have “marriage longevity” records, and I think that always helps. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Amber

    What I learned from this is that I should stop responding to Eric’s requests with obnoxious eye rolls, and I should actually DO the thing he wants help with. Mmmmm. Food for thought. We stay together mostly because I want to be the first women in my family for three generations not to get divorced, just to show I can. I wonder what the scientists say of my grudge marriage?

    Reply
  3. Debra

    Nicely written!!!

    I used to think that there was something wrong with me when people used to say, “What do you want to do with your life?”

    My response would always be–“To be happy —with life and friends.”

    Reply
  4. Bernardette Kasum

    Yes I also believe respect and trust are very important in a long lasting relationship. Nice article Jeff!

    Reply

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