One of the Most Important Ingredients for a Happy Marriage

Research reveals the interpersonal dynamics that strengthen a marriage.

Posted May 14, 2019

Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock
Source: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

We can pick them out in restaurants. We spot them at sporting events. Happy couples. They are distinguished by the way they behave toward each other. They are engaged and interested. Leaning forward, connecting through good eye contact, nodding, and smiling, they listen, laugh, and appear to love each other's company. These sightings raise the very important question—how do they do it? Thankfully, research has some answers.

Marriage Breeds Happiness

Learning the ingredients of a happy marriage is important to everyone, married or not, because of the link between marriage and happiness.

Shawn Grover and John F. Helliwell—in a piece aptly entitled, "How's Life at Home?”—note that research on well-being indicates that marriage is positively linked with subjective well-being.1 They note that some speculate happy people are more likely to be willing to tie the knot, while others predict that newlywed bliss is a short-lasting effect.

They found, however, that after controlling for individual pre-marriage well-being, married couples were still likely to express a higher degree of satisfaction. This was true from the honeymoon stage through long-term marriages. In other words, although there are exceptions, married couples are more satisfied than those who remain single.

Predicting Success: Spouses Who Are Friends

Many couples distinguish between their partner and their best friend. Some, however, maintain that the secret to a long, happy marriage is having those two relationships be merged into one person: their spouse. Sure enough, research corroborates this finding.

One significant aspect of Grover and Helliwell's research was their findings regarding the importance of friendship. Exploring friendship as something that could explain the link between marriage and life satisfaction, they found that for couples who considered their spouses to be their best friend, the well-being impact of marriage was twice as large as for other couples.

These findings suggest that friendship enhances romantic relationships in more ways than one, given its positive impact on well-being. Considering the changes that occur during different stages of life throughout the duration of marriage, other research has similarly examined how friendship works to solidify romantic love and commitment.

Spouses Who Are Friends First

Victor W. Harris et al. (2016) set out to explore the roles of friendship, trust, and love on a sample of German marriages.2 They cite prior research, which demonstrated the positive impact of marital friendship on the creation of a successful and happy marriage.

Harris et al. adopted a research-based definition of friendship for the purposes of their study as "a close attachment relationship that includes mutual attractiveness, liking (but not necessarily love), intimate self-disclosure, and support." They note that this definition of friendship includes other themes present in happy marriages, such as cohesion and communication. They explain that adding trust to the mix enables friendship to blossom into romantic love.

Explaining their results, they found that even if the word “friendship” was not explicitly used, most of the couples they studied described the concept of friendship as a bridge to developing deeper emotions, trust, and marital commitment. Specifically, as a practical matter, the couples they studied cited spending time together, enjoying each other's company, and having fun together as factors which “contributed to the development and maintenance of their friendship and later to love experienced as emotion, behavior, and commitment.”

A previous study of strong Latino marriages revealed similar findings. Victor W. Harris et al. (2008) examined the role of friendship, trust, and love, for 25 Latino couples reporting strong marriages.3 These couples reported friendship as an important foundational component of a strong marriage. Regarding affection expressed through behavior, couples cited “spending time together and participating in positive and healthy activities together along with talking a lot” as the context within which friendship was able to flourish.

Till Death Do Us Part and Friends Forever

For many couples, friendship is a healthy, hearty component of a successful marriage. Combining the most enjoyable elements of platonic friendship, such as having fun and enjoying time together, with the level of commitment and affection experienced through love and romantic attachment, couples who marry their best friends might be matches made in heaven.

References

1. Shawn Grover and John F. Helliwell, "How's Life at Home? New Evidence on Marriage and the Set Point for Happiness." J.Happiness Stud 20 (2019): 373-390.

2. Victor W. Harris, Kasey Bedard, Daniel Moen & Pablo Álvarez-Pérez The Role of Friendship, Trust, and Love in Happy German Marriages, Marriage & Family Review 52, no. 3 (2016): 262-304.

3. Harris, V. William, Linda Skogrand, and Daniel Hatch. “Role of Friendship, Trust, and Love in Strong Latino Marriages.” Marriage & Family Review 44, no. 4 (2008): 455–488.