- Both husbands and wives who had a more positive view of their marital role reported more commitment to their partner, which was associated with better relationship satisfaction and higher reports of positive communication. Tweet This
- Cultural support for marriage may develop attitudes and beliefs that can help create healthier, more stable relationships. Tweet This
It’s a well-known concept that thinking positively about some area of life will likely help improve both a person’s demeanor and even well-being, at least on a minor level. And many of us have encouraged friends to try to look on the bright side of a stressful situation or focus on the long-term benefits of a current diet or exercise routine rather than the short-term discomfort. Tapping into the power of positive thinking is a long-standing phenomenon in psychology. Yet this line of thinking has rarely been applied to the institution of marriage. Despite the on-going debate in both public and academic circles over whether the benefits of marriage are real or a relic of the past, rarely have scholars explored if positive thinking about one’s own marriage might reap benefits for both individuals and couples.
That’s exactly what my colleagues and I sought to do in a recently published study of newlyweds. Using a nationally representative sample of newly-married heterosexual couples, we explored whether or not positive beliefs about marriage by both partners were linked to better marital well-being. We also examined if having a positive perception of marriage created a joint “pro-marriage” environment that also benefited early marital dynamics.
We found evidence for both of these theories. Both husbands and wives who had a more positive view of their marital role reported more commitment to their partner, which was then associated with better relationship satisfaction and higher reports of positive communication.
Critical readers might respond: don’t all newlyweds think their marriage is important? After all, most couples in our sample had only been married for less than two years. Even so, we found quite a bit of variation in our sample. This was partially due to the unique way we assessed the importance of marriage, using a concept called marital centrality. Instead of simply asking each person if they valued their marriage, we asked them to place a relative importance on their spousal role compared to other priorities in their life (such as work, parenting, or leisure). Even in this sample of newlywed couples, only about half of both wives and husbands listed their marriage as their biggest priority, and we found a fairly wide variation in the percent importance placed on marriage relative to other life roles.
Of course, there are a few caveats about these findings. First, we analyzed only the initial wave of data, meaning that these associations between positive beliefs about marriage and well-being may (and likely are) bidirectional. This means that those in better, higher-quality relationships are likely to view their marriage and their marital roles in a more positive light. While we hope to continue to explore these associations longitudinally, for now, we can only speculate on the direction of these associations. Still, the clear link between the value newlywed couples place on their marriage and their well-being is an important one to consider.
Although time together, joint interests, and shared experiences likely all help to develop a sense of commitment to one’s relationship, the value an individual places on the institution of marriage (and the legal and personal commitments such an institution implies) probably helps solidify, nurture, and further deepen spousal commitment.
There are at least three important takeaways from these findings.
1. The long-standing power of commitment
Commitment is an essential part of any romantic relationship. Many scholars have long noted the power that commitment holds in establishing healthy relationship patterns and creating the stability needed for long-term marriages. One of the main findings of our study was that as both husbands and wives placed more importance on their marriage, they also tended to report higher levels of commitment to each other. This commitment was associated with a wide variety of positive relationship outcomes. Such commitment appears to be not only tied to one’s partner, but clearly to the greater institution of marriage. These findings build on previous research showing that undermining an individual’s faith and commitment to marriage can destabilize marital relationships. At the individual level, these results suggest that individuals who value their marriage and their spousal role are more likely to also feel a deeper sense of commitment to their partner.
While commitment is a vital part of any relationship, the factors that help support and develop this commitment are more a mystery. Although time together, joint interests, and shared experiences likely all help to develop a sense of commitment in one’s relationship, the value an individual places on the institution of marriage (and the legal and personal commitments such an institution implies) probably helps solidify, nurture, and further deepen spousal commitment.
2. The importance of building a pro-marriage couple environment
But the results of this study are not just an endorsement of the power of personal commitment to both marriage and one’s partner. A unique aspect of this study was our ability to explore not only individual links between beliefs in marriage, commitment, and relationship well-being, but to examine these links at the couple-level. Using advanced statistical models that allowed us to examine the shared environment of each couple in our data, we were able to show that the association between positive beliefs about marriage and commitment also operate on the couple-level. This means that the more these newlywed couples developed a joint sense of the importance of marriage, the more their relationships were defined by deeper joint commitment and, in turn, positive marital dynamics. Like many aspects of marriage, the interplay between positive beliefs about marriage and the deepening of relationship commitment is more than just an individual endeavor. The results of this study speak to the need for couples to jointly develop a marital culture where the institution of marriage is valued and prioritized. A relationship that prioritizes and values the spousal role as both important and meaningful appears to develop hand-in-hand with a relationship that also creates a joint sense of stability and commitment to each other.
3. Thinking of marriage promotion as personal
Taken together, one of the most important implications of this study (which joins many others in suggesting that pro-marriage attitudes and beliefs may benefit both individuals and couples) is that creating a pro-marriage culture should transcend any political agenda. It should simply be about helping improve the well-being of married couples. At the individual and couple levels, creating and sustaining a positive view of marriage appears to be part of what makes these marriages committed and healthy.
If thinking positively about marriage is linked with positive outcomes, are we creating a “pro-marriage” culture that would allow more couples to prioritize and value their own marriages? This seems to be happening less and less. Between some authors arguing against marriage to others noting all the reasons not to get married, many messages in our modern culture seem to send a clear signal that marriage is a transition tied to less freedom, less fun, and less happiness. To be clear, marriage is not the right choice for everyone, and there are many happy and healthy people who never marry. But given that the majority of adults will someday tie the knot, creating more positive messages about the institution of marriage is an important priority, especially in light of evidence from our study and others suggesting that cultural support for marriage may develop attitudes and beliefs that can help create healthier, more stable relationships.
Brian Willoughby is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution and an associate professor in the School of Family Life at BYU.