Photo by Yuri Arcurs/Hemera/Thinkstock
Turns out, the old adage “happy wife, happy life” is spot on. When a woman is happily married, her husband’s overall life satisfaction gets a boost, regardless of how he feels about their union, according to a new Rutgers University study, published in the October issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.
The researchers analyzed the marital quality and general well-being of 394 couples who’d been married, on average, for 39 years. (To be included, both spouses had to be at least 50 years old, and one at least 60.) Although overall life satisfaction didn’t significantly differ by gender, the men did tend to report slightly higher marital happiness than their wives did.
And an unhappy wife spelled serious trouble: When the women didn’t report wedded bliss, their husbands’ overall life contentment tended to take a hit. This was true even when then men weren’t thrilled about the marriage either. Specifically, among husbands who thought their marital quality was “very poor,” those with equally unhappy wives reported a life satisfaction score of only 1.8 out of 6, compared to a 5.4 out of 6 if the unhappily married men’s wives were content in the relationship.
By contrast, among women who rated their marriage poorly, overall life satisfaction was only minimally influenced by their husband’s marital happiness.
So why is the woman’s contentment so critical? The reason is not the one you may suspect — that a happy wife is one who’s pampered (and therefore doesn’t complain). Quite the opposite. In fact, “if a wife is happy in her marriage, she will try hard to create a positive experience for her husband,” study author Deborah Carr told Yahoo Health. “So perhaps she listens to him more, she offers him more emotional support, or maybe she offers him more help with daily activities.” A satisfied wife may also be more willing to twist the sheets on a more regular basis.
“All of those things might make a husband happier in general, even if it doesn’t affect his views of the marriage,” said Carr.
Consider the reverse, too: When a woman is unhappy in her marriage, there’s a good chance she’ll let her spouse know. “She is much more likely to talk, to be confrontational, and all of those things might affect the husband,” Carr explained. By contrast, the discontented husband is more likely to “sit and seethe silently,” so his misery might not make much of an impact on his wife. “She might be totally unaware of it,” she said.
The age of the couples in the study likely plays a significant role in the findings, since previous generations tended to think it was the woman’s job to set the emotional tone of the marriage.
“I think we might see more parallel findings for men and women of the younger generation,” said Carr. “Among people in their 30s and 40s, both men and women were raised to talk about their feelings. Young people today want to marry their soul mate, so the assumption is that you should share your hopes and dreams and passions — and you should put all of these abstract ideas on the table when you’re dating.”
Related: The Case Against “Soul Mates”
Regardless of a couple’s age, Carr thinks her study serves as an important reminder: Communication about the state of your union is critical to your success as a couple. “The correlation between his and her marital appraisals isn’t that high, meaning that one spouse can be happy in a marriage, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that the other is also happy,” she told Yahoo Health.
Want to make sure your marriage is thriving — from both perspectives? Try these strategies to ensure you and your spouse are equally satisfied:
Check in regularly.
Every few months, make a point to conduct a relationship check-up. That means talking about the sore points — e.g. disappointments and hurt feelings — but also the things your spouse is doing right. “Say, ‘Let’s talk about the things that are making us happy. Let’s talk about the things you’re doing that I appreciate,’” Carr suggested. “That can actually be just as important as talking about the problems.” Why? It lets your significant other know what makes you really feel loved — and helps ensure that he or she keeps it up in the future.
You may be tempted to use all of your together time to vent, but you should also make sure your spouse feels heard. If you don’t know where to start, try the questions the researchers asked couples in the study: Do you feel like you can open up to me about your worries? Do you feel appreciated by me? Do I tend to argue with you a lot? Do I understand the way you feel about things? Do I make you feel tense? Do I get on your nerves?
Hint: Have your spouse share his or her answer — and then elaborate on why he or she answered that way. “You might be surprised,” said Carr. “Sometimes, we might feel we’re helping someone, but we’re not helping them in the way they want to be helped. Someone may feel they’re being caring, but they’re perceived as nagging.”