'Happy spouse, happy house?’ Study finds men and women equally strong predictors of relationship satisfaction

a man and a woman hold hands affectionately
(photo by AsiaVision./Getty Images)

Researchers have found that men and women are both equally strong predictors of future relationship satisfaction in mixed-gender relationships – suggesting the phrase “Happy spouse, happy house” is not only a more inclusive maxim than the old saw about wives and lives, but far more accurate.

“People experience ups and downs in their romantic relationships,” says Emily Impett, a professor in the department of psychology at U of T Mississauga. “Some days are better than others, and it is widely believed that women's relationship perceptions will carry more weight in predicting future relationship satisfaction.

Emily Impett (photo by Darya Morreale)

“This idea that women are the barometers of relationships is captured in expressions like ‘happy wife, happy life.’”

Yet, there are few studies that have examined this assumption, and those that did had small sample sizes. So, Impett and the University of Alberta’s Matthew Johnson, as well as other researchers, tested the old adage through analysis of data from nine studies from Canada, the United States and Germany. The studies included relationship satisfaction reports provided by 901 mixed-gender couples who kept a daily diary for up to 21 days, and a yearly relationship satisfaction survey provided by 3,405 couples over a five-year period. In all, the research considered more than 50,000 relationship satisfaction reports.

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The relationship satisfaction of both men and women were equally strong predictors of their own future satisfaction and of their partner’s – whether it was day-to-day, or year-to-year,” says Impett. “Men’s satisfaction matters equally, in terms of how they feel, and how their partner feels about the relationship in the future.

“Just think about what happens in the daily lives of couples. When one partner is having a particularly bad day, that lingers in the relationship. On the flip side of that, when one partner is feeling particularly good about the relationship, both partners reap the benefits of that. We see the same pattern over longer periods of time too, from one year to the next. Relationship satisfaction forecasts future satisfaction.”

The research calls into questions several existing theoretical perspectives.

“Evolutionary perspectives might suggest that women have evolved psychological mechanisms that make them especially attuned to the quality of their relationships – to help them select an optimal mate,” Impett explains. “And there is also a social-psychological perspective. The social performance of gender roles requires women to attend to the needs of their partners and take responsibility for maintaining relationships. So, their views about the relationship would be more likely to affect couple dynamics. But that is not what we found at all. We found that both men and women have equal power to shape the future of their relationship.”

The researchers’ findings underscore the importance of being aware of satisfaction in relationships and taking the necessary steps to cultivate it.

“Many couples wait too long to seek help for issues in their relationships, but people know when they are experiencing more negativity than positivity, and they have the potential to try to shift things,” says Impett.

“We already know the things that couples can do to maintain relationship satisfaction: be responsive to a partner's needs, support them when they are down, share in their good news and cultivate gratitude.

“It is important for people to be aware of their own satisfaction and its fluctuations. Knowing how you can impact your own relationship satisfaction matters for you, and it matters for your partner, too.”

The research was supported by the  Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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