Theories abound, but what really leads to a happy marriage? Psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of the forthcoming book, ‘Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals,’ explains.
Q: Can you briefly outline the top theories on what makes for a happy marriage?
A: There are really too many to do justice to in a paragraph, but you can break them down into theories about you, your partner, or the match between the two.
Some researchers have focused on how a person’s own personality and character influence whether or not they are happy in their marriages. For instance, people who are more emotionally stable (what we used to call less “neurotic”) tend to be happier. Others researchers focus on what the partner is bringing to the table: Are they emotionally stable, are they supportive?
Finally, some argue that similarity is really what’s important — that two people with similar personalities will get along better, and therefore be happier. Some dating services rely on this theory heavily when “matching” single people with one another.
Q: How does your own personality affect your marital success?
A: No relationship is perfect, and every couple has their trials and tribulations. People with certain character traits seem to handle difficulty more easily, and find their relationships to be more harmonious and satisfying as a result.
Being agreeable (sensitive to the feelings of others, focused on creating harmony), conscientious (thoughtful, responsible), and emotionally stable (less likely to fly off the handle, more even-tempered) seem to be the most important qualities for creating marital bliss.
Q: And how about your partner’s personality?
A: Being agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable is great, but if your partner is insensitive, irresponsible, and prone to mood swings, it’s going to be hard to find happiness in your relationship. Ideally, both people in the relationship are bringing good qualities to it, so both are equipped to deal with the stresses and challenges of married life.
Q: You mentioned that many dating services focus on similarity. But you’ve found that it’s not essential for happiness?
A: Similarity itself doesn’t turn out to be important — couples are able to be happy and mutually supportive even when one person is shy and the other outgoing, or when one likes adventure and the other is more of a homebody. Often, couples report appreciating the fact that their spouse is different in some ways — they say that it creates balance in the relationship, and that each one helps the other to grow in new ways and experience new things.
I do want to say, though, that while similarity in personality seems to be relatively unimportant, similarity in goals and values is very important. You and your partner need to be on the same page when it comes to deciding what your priorities as a couple are, and what you want out of life.
Q: What’s your advice for anyone shopping around for a mate?
A: Look for the Big Three: Agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability. It’s probably okay if your partner is low in one of these qualities, but I’d start to worry if they were low in two or more of them.
And remember that you don’t need to have similar personalities, but you should want the same things out of life.