KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — “Happily ever after” certainly sounds nice in stories and fairytales, but when it comes to real-life relationships and marriages, it is pretty much impossible to avoid the occasional fight or argument. That’s right, even happily married couples who have been together for decades still argue every so often, but a new study finds that the topics married couples choose to argue about can make all the difference.
Researchers at the University of Tennessee say happily and unhappily married couples tend to stress about the same common issues: finances, lack of romance, in-laws, etc. The difference between a happy and an unhappy couple, though, is how they choose to address those concerns among one another.
“Happy couples tend to take a solution-oriented approach to conflict, and this is clear even in the topics that they choose to discuss,” comments lead author Amy Rauer, associate professor of child and family studies at the university, in a release.
Rauer and her team analyzed and observed two groups of self-described “happily married” couples. One group consisted of 57 couples in their mid-to-late 30s who had been married an average of nine years, and the other group was comprised of 64 couples in their early 70s who had been married an average of 42 years.
Both groups were asked to list some of their most and least serious marital problems, and both groups produced very similar results. Couples listed problems like money, communication, and intimacy as some of their biggest issues, and listed problems like jealousy and religion among their least pressing problems.
Then, as researchers observed these happy couples actually discuss some of their problems, they noticed that they were choosing to discuss problems that had a reasonably clear solution. Examples included discussing how to spend their leisure time or who is responsible for which household chores.
“Re-balancing chores may not be easy, but it lends itself to more concrete solutions than other issues,” Rauer explains. “One spouse could do more of certain chores to balance the scales.”
The happy couples almost never chose to discuss problems that were harder to resolve, a factor that researchers believe has been critical to their marital happiness.
“Focusing on the perpetual, more-difficult-to-solve problems may undermine partners’ confidence in the relationship,” Rauer says.
The research team suggest that, whenever possible, couples should tackle relatively easy-to-solve problems in their relationship before focusing on bigger, more complicated issues.
“If couples feel that they can work together to resolve their issues, it may give them the confidence to move on to tackling the more difficult issues,” Rauer explains.
So, what problems did most couples avoid? Physical intimacy and a spouse’s health were among the least discussed topics. Researchers speculate this was the case because these are problems that can be very difficult for someone to broach with their spouse without inadvertently hurting their feelings or making their partner feel vulnerable or embarrassed.
It was also noted that couples who had been married longer reported fewer problems, and argued less. This is inline with previous research that suggests the longer two people stay together, the more they realize that arguments with no clear cut resolution are not worth the effort.
“Being able to successfully differentiate between issues that need to be resolved versus those that can be laid aside for now may be one of the keys to a long-lasting, happy relationship,” Rauer concludes.
The study is published in the scientific journal Family Process.