University of Alberta: New research dispels ‘happy wife, happy life’ stereotype

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Keeping a romantic relationship healthy takes work — and the burden doesn’t just rest on women, according to a new University of Alberta study.

When mixed-gender couples were asked about their relationships, men’s satisfaction levels were found to be just as significant as those of their female partners in predicting their future happiness together, the research shows.

The finding dispels the stereotype of “happy wife, happy life,” says Matthew Johnson, a U of A relationship researcher and lead author on the study.

“It challenges the notion that women are these unique barometers who are more attuned to what’s happening, and that they have diagnostic abilities men just don’t have,” said Johnson, a professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences.

The research drew on data from 10 Canadian, American and German studies that assessed 901 mixed-gender couples daily for up to 21 days and from 3,405 mixed-gender couples assessed annually for five years.

Analysis of more than 50,000 relationship satisfaction reports showed that men’s and women’s satisfaction levels were equally strong predictors of their own and their partner’s short- and long-term happiness.

“What the study shows is that men’s experiences and predictions of their relationships are just as informative; the experience of both partners matters, regardless of gender.”

Equal ability, shared responsibility
The comprehensive study is the first to rigorously test a general theory that emerged in the 1970s, during the early years of research on couples, Johnson notes.

At the time, researchers had observed couples’ communication and found that women’s behaviour was more indicative of the health of the relationship, leading to the idea that they’d also be the more effective barometers.

“People just latched onto this idea and it’s become a common belief. There’s still that thought or expectation that women have unique attention to the relational side of things.

“But men and women have equal ability and, with that, the shared responsibility for directing the course of their relationship.”

That goes for better or for worse, he adds.

“I think the expectation for women to serve as relationship managers has let men off the hook in some ways. But men have just as much responsibility for taking action and capitalizing on the good times when their partnership is going well, and building on it so they can continue to enjoy good times in the future for themselves and their partners.

“On the flip side, when things are not going well, men have just as much power as women in their relationship to figure out what’s happening, contain it, cope with it and try to prevent it from spilling over into how things go tomorrow.”

Act sooner when things aren’t good
The study also showed that when people were more satisfied than usual in their relationship — or less than satisfied — that feeling was likely to persist long-term.

Johnson suggests it’s important for couples to recognize that pattern and act on it.

“If what is happening in your relationship is good, double down on that so you can reap those rewards into the future. If what’s happening is not what you’d hoped for in your love life, make changes now, because if the relationship is struggling, it’s going to continue to struggle unless you act.”

Awareness can help couples navigate bumps in the road, he adds.

“Actively think about how things are going in your relationship, don’t just go along for the ride. Be reflective.

“In the busyness of life, no one wants to think about what is hard or uncomfortable, but if we took time to take stock of things and were a bit more intentional about directing our relationships, a lot more people could enjoy success and avoid heartache.”

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