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Marriage

High Standards Produce Mixed Effects on Marriages

There is a tension between what spouses demand from their marriages and what they are capable of attaining from those marriages, according to recent psychology research. The results are published in the April 2016 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

High standards, whether in caring, support, or independence, improve satisfaction only in strong marriages. For less strong marriages, such as those involving higher levels of indirect hostility or more severe problems, high standards further erode the relationship.

A release from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology quotes Dr. James McNulty, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and author of the study, as saying, “Some people demand too much from their marriages because they are requiring that their marriages fulfill needs that they are not capable of achieving, either because they have limited time, energy, effort, or skills to apply to their marriages. But other people demand too little from their marriages. Their marriage is a potential source of personal fulfillment that they are not exploiting. Ultimately, spouses appear to be best off to the extent that they ask of their marriages as much as, but not more than, their marriages are able to give them.”

The researchers utilized data from 135 newlywed couples living in eastern Tennessee. To start, each partner separately completed surveys to measure several aspects of their own standards as well as the severity of relationship problems and marital satisfaction.

The newlyweds also participated in marital discussions that were video recorded, where researchers studied various aspects of verbal communication to assess the couple’s indirect hostility with each other. The couples continued to report their marital satisfaction via a questionnaire every six months for four years.

“When it comes to verbal problem-solving, indirect hostility is more destructive than direct hostility,” says McNulty. “Prior work by our lab and others indicates that direct hostility, such as blaming the partner for a problem and demanding that the partner change, can have important benefits to some couples, specifically those who need to change. The key is that direct hostility communicates that there is a need for change and even how each partner wants things to change. Our prior research indicates indirect hostility is harmful for all couples.”

As newlyweds, husbands and wives reported being relatively satisfied with their marriages and relatively high standards. Yet their reports also indicated that some couples were less happy and demanded less than others. Initially, spouses were observed to have engaged in relatively low levels of indirect hostility on average, yet there was substantial variability in these, as well.

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