It’s 5:30 p.m. when your spouse walks in the front door. What’s the first thing you do? a) Ask him/her to do something, b) Complain about how cranky the kids have been or about your tough workday, or c) Smile and say hi.
Option C might not come naturally at the end of a long, stressful day, but an increasing amount of research implies that mundane positive interactions lay the foundation for strong, lasting marriages. It’s not just that we all prefer everyday pleasantries to complaints and chore assignments; it’s also because the moments of mutual connection protect marriages from the negative interactions we all confront from time to time.
The latest piece of evidence for this theory comes from a report by University of Texas at Austin researchers Courtney Walsh, Lisa Neff, and Marci Gleason. Published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the study examined the links between recently married couples’ shared positive experiences, negative behaviors, and marital satisfaction. The 171 participating couples recruited into the study were all in their first marriage, had been married less than six months, and had no children at the time the study began. Their relationship experiences and happiness were measured over a three-year period in a series of three 14-day daily surveys.
The results largely echoed earlier work and mirrored the researchers’ expectations:
individuals who generally reported accumulating more emotional capital over each diary period exhibited lower reactivity to their partner’s daily negative behaviors compared with individuals who generally reported accumulating less emotional capital within the relationship.
That is, the daily marital satisfaction of people who regularly enjoyed more positive exchanges with their spouses—building up “emotional capital”—was less vulnerable to negative experiences. Your spouse’s occasional impatience and criticism hurt your day-to-day marital happiness less if the two of you have emotional reserves to fall back on.
The key word in that last sentence is “occasional.” According to other scholars, pleasant interactions vastly outnumber negative ones in successful marriages. Renowned relationship researcher John Gottman, who has observed hundreds of couples as they converse and spend time together, believes that the “magic ratio” for a stable marriage is five to one. “As long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative,” he wrote in Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, “we found the marriage was likely to be stable.” (Walsh, Neff, and Gleason did not focus on this question, but they reported that their findings imply that negative experiences weigh more than positive ones in individuals’ assessments of their relationships.)
So what does the abstraction of emotional capital look like in real life? When they discuss “emotional capital” and “positive interactions,” scholars have in mind simple things like spouses enjoying a leisure activity together, complimenting and expressing appreciation for each other, laughing together, and responding generously to each other’s “bids” for conversation and connection. (Brett and Kate McKay recently suggested even more ideas at The Art of Manliness.) In the metaphor of Gottman and others, positive shared experiences such as these are like deposits in a bank account. Negative behaviors and interactions—criticism, broken promises, conflicts that turn nasty—are like withdrawals. Without frequent deposits of emotional capital, withdrawals will leave your relationship bankrupt.
Unlike an earlier study, this one did not find a link between emotional capital on one day and reactivity to negative spousal behavior on the next. Here it was only chronic emotional capital, measured as the average daily capital in a 14-day survey phase, that mattered. The study results remained significant when general marital satisfaction was controlled for. Walsh, Neff, and Gleason recommend that future research investigate other factors that could influence the links they found, such as individuals’ personality traits and attachment style, and test whether their findings hold not just for happy newlyweds but also, say, couples confronting serious problems in their marriages. In the meantime, as unromantic as the bank account metaphor may sound, most of us could surely use the reminder that devoting energy to the little moments in marriage pays off in the long run.