By Jamie C. Williamson, PhD
This may seem a bit counterintuitive. I’m sure you’ve heard many relationship “experts” (or your own mom) say that the main cause of marital unhappiness and the high divorce rate is that couples have too high expectations for each other and their marriage.
However, relationship research suggests otherwise. According to clinical psychologist and creator of Cognitive-Behavioral couples therapy Donald Baucom, the couples with the greatest expectations for their relationship and each other usually create the highest quality marriage.
I think it works like this: Couples with high expectations for marriage and the well-being of their relationship work hard to maintain positive feelings toward each other, and they stay optimistic about their relationship and are resilient in the face of inevitable relationship and life challenges.
Fortunately, all three of these characteristics can be learned.
Maintaining Positive Feelings
Positive feelings about each other form the foundation of relationship well-being. John Gottman stipulates that fondness and admiration are two of the most important elements in maintaining a rewarding, long-lasting marriage and that, without them, couples will not thrive.
Most couples begin their marriage with positive feelings about one another and can easily maintain them until something goes wrong. To guard against this, couples with high expectations for their relationship take action to maintain and increase their positive emotion about the present by turning toward each other for quality conversation and connection, physical pleasures, and enjoying activities together.
Equally, if not more important, these couples also know how to restore their positive feelings for each other after a negative relationship incident by cultivating forgiveness and gratitude. They have learned how to make meaningful apologies, which promotes trust. They have learned the value of true forgiveness, which comes easier because their overarching positive regard for one another promotes empathic understanding. And they re-focus on the positive aspects of their partner and their relationship by adopting an attitude of gratitude.
The Optimism – Resilience Connection
High expectations inherently create a sense of optimism about the future. Positive psychologist Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory of well-being stipulates that Optimism is one of the “key contributors” to individual well-being. I believe that a couple’s Optimism about their relationship is also one of the “key contributors” to their relationship well-being because optimism promotes a couple’s belief that they can and will work together successfully to:
- cope with each other’s minor mistakes or relationship transgressions (e.g., everything from forgetting to pay the bills to lying about it);
- respond to negative external influences (e.g., challenging in-laws, unexpected home repairs);
- adapt to challenging life experiences (e.g., becoming parents, serious illness, job loss).
Relationship Resilience requires that couples have positive emotions, communication skills, and cognitive and behavioral flexibility. Couples with high expectations and the associated optimism about their relationship, either have these qualities or use their combined resources to learn and master the skills needed to move through the challenge. These couples flourish as a result of the renewed relationship commitment their resilient effort required and the relationship pride they feel as a result of their success.
Couples who stay happily married aren’t happy with each other every day.
Like all couples, those who flourish experience the dynamic ups and downs of everyday family life, financial concerns, in-law issues, housework, work-life balance, and the stress of creating happy holiday experiences for their family.
Couples who flourish also have high positive expectations for the well-being of their relationship. They work at maintaining positive feelings about one another, and their high positive expectations engender optimism that drives resilience in the face of internal or external challenges to their relationship. As a result, these couples get what they expect.
If you’ve lost optimism for your relationship or are having difficulty mustering the relationship resistance you need to face your current challenges, share this article with your spouse. Then, together, decide how you will learn how to increase your positive regard for one another and capture the Teflon-like magic of the optimism-resilience connection. That, my friends, will become your relationship superpower.
Let me know if I can help.
I’m a FL Supreme Court Certified Family Mediator and Couples Counselor who is part of the Gottman Referral Network. You’ll find me at Amity Mediation Workshop, where we specialize in “friendly divorce” mediation and psycho-educational “Let’s Stay Together” private workshops, designed for couples who want to restore or enhance their marital happiness. I also speak frequently on relationship topics and author the relationship blog called “Work it Out”.