Marriage can have some really, really tough times — maybe you’re in that mode right now — and have been for a while. You wonder: is this all there is? Does anyone really enjoy this? Or maybe your marriage is not horrible but it’s only just tolerable. Maybe steady but dull. You’re wondering if there’s more. Or perhaps you’re contemplating marriage but what you witnessed of your parents’ marriage leads you to continue to wonder: is it even possible to have a very happy marriage?

There is a mixed perception of marriage in western culture. On one hand, marriage is viewed as the “happily ever after” that everyone aspires to, on the other it is considered a restriction of freedom; being stuck with the same person for life and giving up on what you want in favor of what’s best for the marriage and the family. “These two competing visions of marriage- the wedding as a doorway to happiness and the wedding as an obstacle to individual growth- subsist side by side in contemporary American culture.[i]

So we’re not all sold on this, right? We still wonder: does marriage actually make you happier?

Does Marriage Make You Happier?

I am very happy to say the answer is “Yes!”

Research almost universally shows that married people are happier than non-married, divorced or widowed[ii][iii][iv]. “Marriage has often been found to be one of the strongest correlates of happiness and wellbeing[v]”. One study[vi] of over 14,000 people over a ten year period found that marriage was one of the most important predictors of happiness.

Now before we get all giddy — we have to ask. Does marriage make you happier? Or is it that happier people are more likely to get married?

A study from 2006[vii] found that found that happier single people are more likely to opt for marriage. Uh-oh. However, in a 2014 study[viii] that controlled for pre-marital levels of happiness, it was still found that marriage will increase happiness over and above pre-marriage levels, suggesting a causal effect. So the evidence suggests that even if happier people tend to get married, marriage still causes an increase in happiness above what it was pre-marriage.

Stats on Marriage and Happiness/Satisfaction

So what about the stats on this? What are we looking at?

79% of married men and 81% of married women report being “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with life[ix]. This is higher than for those living together, or those who are single or divorced/separated.

40% of married people reported being “very happy” with their lives, compared to under 25% for single people[x].

I just want to sidebar for one sec here — in case you happen to be single and reading a post on a marriage website— there’s still nearly 1 in 4 people who are single and very happy. Yeah, it’s less than the percentage of married and happy. But don’t choose to stake your happiness on being married — because there are people who are not married and are still happy.

I just don’t want to leave anyone with the idea that if you’re single, you can’t enjoy life or if you’re single, you aren’t reaching a standard that the rest of us have who are married. It’s just different. It’s about what you make of it for your singleness as much as for those of us who are making something of our marriages.

I’m going to go over several factors that lead to happiness and joy in marriage. I’m just summarizing them here. If you want to learn how to take each of these to a deeper level, you’ll want to be sure to download the bonus PDF for this topic.

That file is available to our faithful patrons who support the ongoing production of our show by making a monthly commitment. These are folks who are truly serious about strengthening their own marriage as well as the marriages others — we’d love for you to go deep on this topic and also join our group of patrons in support of the work we do here through the Marriage Podcast for Smart People.

Finding the Joy in Your Marriage

However happy you are with your marriage currently, our bonus guide will help you talk through several really important issues with your spouse. The aim is to help you celebrate the things you’re doing well in your marriage and gently help you identify ways you can increase the joy you both experience.

Factors Leading to Joy and Happiness in Marriage

Now let’s go over the factors leading to happiness and joy in marriage:

    1. Communication[xi]. Styles of communication that were relaxed, friendly, open, dramatic or attentive increased marital happiness. Using a variety of different communication styles was also linked to happiness. Couples who are happily married develop unique conversation styles that are more personal, spontaneous and make self-disclosure easier.
      You’ve probably seen couples who seem to speak a totally different language that only they understand. This totally relaxed, unique way of relating to each other builds intimacy and happiness into the relationship.
    2. Friendship[xii]. Don’t miss this one. Marriage increases happiness and life satisfaction levels overall, and protects against the dip in life satisfaction many people feel in middle age. This effect is twice as strong in married couples who are also best friends. These effects are found almost universally in different cultures around the world.
    3. Social Support[xiii]. “Marriage is the greatest source of social support for most people, more than friends or kin, including emotional and material support, and companionship.” Marriage also promotes physical health by encouraging you to think about long-term consequences and to live healthily, and protects mental health by giving you someone to confide in and receive support from. “Social support” sounds so technical — but this is a beautiful thing when you have it. And great for your health and wellbeing too. Well worth building into your marriage.
    4. Specialization[xiv]. Couples complement each other with different emotional skills, creating a “balancing act that leaves both partners better off.” Don’t compete or complain about shortcomings — complement each other. Also sometimes true with physical skills, leading to easier division of labor.
    5. Meaning[xv]. “Marriage partners together create a shared sense of social reality and meaning- their own little separate world, populated by only the two of them”. Even a marriage that isn’t perfect can still provide a sense of meaning, and a sense that what you do matters. There’s also meaning in the bond you have: no matter what else happens in life there is someone who cares for you and values you.
    6. Better Sex[xvi]. Marriage creates a better sex life due to increased intimacy, exclusivity and enabling you to continually grow closer together and learn how to enjoy sex more. We talk about this a lot more in episode 128!
    7. Humor[xvii]. Marital happiness was linked to use of positive humor (jokes that were about the relationship or the spouse in a playful, benign way). Negative humor (sarcasm and harsh jokes at the spouse’s expense) was negatively correlated with happiness. For both positive and negative, your perception of your spouse’s use of humor was more important than how you use it yourself. So use humor, but wisely and graciously.

Staying Happy Long Term

When it comes to long term marriages — what makes them happy? How do you keep that sense of joy and contentment through the years? Well, we’re going to see it’s some of the same things so I won’t spend too long on this. But I do think it is definitely worth noting these items.

A study from 1990[xviii] interviewed 100 couples who had been married for at least 45 years. These couples identified some variables which were important in sustaining their marriages for so long and remaining happy throughout:

  1. Being married to someone they enjoyed spending time with
  2. Commitment to the spouse and to the marriage
  3. A sense of humor
  4. Similar aims in life, sharing the same friends and agreement on decision making

They found that men and women were very similar in their responses.

Creating a happy marriage also prepares you for the increasing health challenges that come as we age. See, marital closeness protects against hardship. Research shows that relationship quality and closeness to your spouse buffer against the depressive effects of hardships such as physical frailty and financial distress[xix]. Not only is a great, happy marriage something to aim for in itself, but it helps protect you from feeling the effects of hardship in later life.

So: yes, you can have a happy marriage. It is possible. It is also very enjoyable. And it is very helpful. I hope that as you read this today you are challenged and encouraged to keep moving forward! If you’re marriage isn’t as happy as you’d like it to be, hopefully you can identify some areas you can work on. A joyful marriage is definitely something worth fighting for!


 

References:

[i] Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially (Crown/Archetype, 2002).

[ii] Shawn Grover and John Helliwell, How’s Life at Home? New Evidence on Marriage and the Set Point for Happiness (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, December 2014) <https://doi.org/10.3386/w20794>.

[iii] Michael Argyle, ‘Causes and Correlates of Happiness’, in Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology, ed. by D. Kahneman, E. Diener, and N. Schwarz (New York, NY, US: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999), pp. 353–73.

[iv] Waite and Gallagher.

[v] Argyle.

[vi] Waite and Gallagher.

[vii] Alois Stutzer and Bruno S. Frey, ‘Does Marriage Make People Happy, or Do Happy People Get Married?’, The Journal of Socio-Economics, The Socio-Economics of Happiness, 35.2 (2006), 326–47 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socec.2005.11.043>.

[viii] Grover and Helliwell.

[ix] Argyle.

[x] Waite and Gallagher.

[xi] James M. Honeycutt, Charmaine Wilson, and Christine Parker, ‘Effects of Sex and Degrees of Happiness on Perceived Styles of Communicating in and out of the Marital Relationship’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 44.2 (1982), 395–406 <https://doi.org/10.2307/351548>.

[xii] Grover and Helliwell.

[xiii] Argyle.

[xiv] Waite and Gallagher.

[xv] Waite and Gallagher.

[xvi] F. Scott Christopher and Susan Sprecher, ‘Sexuality in Marriage, Dating, and Other Relationships: A Decade Review’, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62.4 (2000), 999–1017.

[xvii] Melissa Johari, ‘Humour and Marital Quality: Is Humour Style Associated with Marital Success?’, Theses and Dissertations (Comprehensive), 2004 <http://scholars.wlu.ca/etd/170>.

[xviii] Robert H. Lauer, Jeanette C. Lauer, and Sarah T. Kerr, ‘The Long-Term Marriage: Perceptions of Stability and Satisfaction’, The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 31.3 (1990), 189–95 <https://doi.org/10.2190/H4X7-9DVX-W2N1-D3BF>.

[xix] Roni Beth Tower and Stanislav V. Kasl, ‘Depressive Symptoms across Older Spouses and the Moderating Effect of Marital Closeness.’, Psychology and Aging, 10.4 (1995), 625–38 <https://doi.org/10.1037/0882-7974.10.4.625>.