Marriage Psychology

James McNulty, Michelle Russell (top), Kristina Gordon and Andrea Meltzer (far right) hope their studies will help prevent and treat marital distress. Photo by Wade Payne

By Whitney Holmes and Emma Macmillan

“Happily ever after” sounds great, but is it possible?

James McNulty, associate professor of psychology at UT Knoxville, has dedicated much of his career to revealing the secrets to a happy marriage. In two separate studies, with two groups of couples — 72 couples in Ohio and 135 in the Knoxville area — McNulty has already uncovered plenty of fascinating details about the importance of looks, weight, sex and forgiveness in a relationship. Some are in line with conventional wisdom while others are not.

McNulty is currently wrapping up his second five-year study. He formed this group by assembling names and addresses of people who applied for marriage licenses in Knox County and sending them information about his study. He also placed advertisements in local media.

At the beginning of the study, the couples came to McNulty’s research laboratory for a full work-up. They filled out questionnaires, had photographs taken and were videotaped discussing marital and personal issues. The couples were paid $100 for this visit.

In six-month increments, each partner fills out a questionnaire about his or her happiness. Rating scales are mixed up to condition for honesty. However, McNulty says his subjects tend to be candid people, so honesty has not been a problem. Couples are paid $50 every six months. After three years, the couples return to the laboratory to be photographed and videotaped again.

About one year remains in the study. Though not finished, McNulty is already seeing a connection between deterioration in one partner’s behavioral tendencies and decline in the other’s happiness. A consistent finding has been that couples are especially happy after their wedding and become less satisfied the longer they are married. He is unsure if this is due to the excitement of the wedding wearing off or due to people changing after marriage.

McNulty’s findings are used to inform and revise theories regarding relationships and psychology. They are also used to form interventions designed to prevent and treat marital distress. The studies are funded by UT, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Fetzer Institute and the National Institute of Child Health and Development Grant.

Pretty Wives, Not-So-Pretty Husbands

A pretty woman, not an ugly one, may make a man — and the woman — happy for the rest of their lives.As Jimmy Soul so convincingly sang: “If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife / So from my personal point of view, get an ugly girl to marry you.” But Soul may have had it all wrong. A pretty woman, not an ugly one, may make a man — and the woman — happy for the rest of their lives.

This is according to McNulty’s study, which found that couples with a better-looking wife demonstrate more positive behaviors during their discussions than couples with a better-looking husband or even an equally attractive wife.

McNulty and a team of researchers assessed newlywed couples as they discussed personal problems, such as eating healthier or landing a new job. A group of trained “coders” rated the facial attractiveness of each spouse on a scale from one to 10, with the perfect 10 representing a head-turner. McNulty admits attractiveness is in the eye of the beholder but notes it can be defined by some universal standards, such as large eyes and symmetrical features. Indeed, the coders showed high agreement about who was and was not attractive.

About a third of the couples had a more attractive wife, a third a more attractive husband, and the remaining partners exhibited the same level of attractiveness. In couples with more attractive husbands, both partners tended to be less supportive of one another. McNulty explained wives tend to mirror the level of support they get from husbands.

But McNulty found “both spouses tended to behave more positively” when the wife was more attractive than her husband.

“The husband who’s less physically attractive than his wife is getting something more than maybe he can expect to get,” he said. “He’s getting something better than he’s providing at that level. So he’s going to work hard to maintain that relationship.”

Physical attractiveness of husbands is not as important to women. Rather, wives are looking for supportive husbands. Therefore, what seems like a mismatch in looks could indeed be a perfect match in love.

Thinner Wives = Happier Husbands

A closeup of hands wearing wedding ringsSpeaking of physical attractiveness of their spouses, Body Mass Index (BMI) also does not seem to matter as much to women as it does to men. A follow-up study by McNulty found that husbands are more satisfied with their marriages if their wives have a lower BMI than their own and are less satisfied if their wives have a higher BMI than their own.

McNulty and a team of researchers led by UT Knoxville doctoral candidate Andrea Meltzer tracked the marital happiness of couples over a four-year period. Independent of each other, each couple completed a questionnaire every six months that tracked height, weight, depression and marital satisfaction.

“To the extent that one partner has a higher BMI than the other, that partner may be relatively less attractive and thus may be perceived to be contributing less to the relationship,” McNulty said.

By society’s standards, a low weight-to-height ratio often translates to physical attractiveness. When husbands see their wives as thin and beautiful, they feel like their wives are offering something they care about, and they tend to be more satisfied with their relationships.

Wives, on the other hand, were not adversely affected by having lower BMIs than their husbands. In fact, four years later, wives who were thinner than their husbands were also more satisfied with their relationships. Presumably, this occurred because their partners’ weight is less important to them than their partners’ satisfaction.

Cure for Neurotic Newlyweds

McNulty’s research has also found a potential buffer against the high levels of anxiety that plague the marriages of neurotics: an active sex life. Typically, neurotic people struggle with relationships and have higher rates of divorce compared to non-neurotic couples. McNulty and Michelle Russell, a UT Knoxville psychology graduate student, set out to determine an antidote to this problem. They found neurotic newlyweds who have frequent sexual relations are just as satisfied with their marriages as their less neurotic counterparts.

“Frequent sex is one way that some neurotic people are able to maintain and satisfy relationships,” said McNulty.

The researchers followed newlywed couples over the first four years of their marriage. Every six months, both spouses privately and separately reported on their marital satisfaction and sexual frequency. Couples reported sexual intercourse about twice a week during the first six months of marriage and about one and a half times a week by the fourth year of marriage.

McNulty surmises sex was beneficial for neurotic spouses because sex can promote a positive mood and thus offset the negative moods so frequently experienced by neurotic people. Therefore, being “in the mood” more often may just help neurotic couples be, well, less moody.

Forgive Me Not

“Forgiveness may increase the likelihood that your misbehaving spouse will misbehave again,” said McNulty.Forgive and forget, right? Not necessarily. According to UT research, quickly forgiving your spouse could hurt your marriage. McNulty recently published two studies showing that men and women who easily forgive their partners are more likely to face repeated bad behavior in the relationship.

In the first study, recently married couples filled out a questionnaire every night for one week, recording their spouses’ negative behavior and whether they had forgiven it. The surveys showed that, if someone had been forgiven for the bad behavior, he or she was almost twice as likely to repeat the same bad behavior the very next day as people who hadn’t been forgiven.

In the second study, McNulty found that the partners of spouses who reported being more likely to express forgiveness reported levels of psychological and physical aggression that remained relatively stable over the course of the four-year study. The partners of spouses less likely to express forgiveness demonstrated declines in aggression.

To reach this conclusion, McNulty asked newlyweds to self-report measures of forgiveness and physical or psychological aggression every six to eight months.

“Forgiving frequent or major offenses, such as verbal or physical abuse, is less advisable because it has the potential to damage the victim or relationship,” said McNulty. “The costs of forgiveness may outweigh the benefits in these situations.”

However, the findings don’t suggest that forgiveness is always bad or that forgiving someone will turn you into a doormat. It is simply that, by not always forgiving, the misbehaving partner realizes that negative behavior has negative implications — anger, loneliness — and thus will engage in that behavior less frequently.

“All in all, the benefits of forgiving easily may need to be weighed against the risks,” he said.

Forgiving Cheating Hearts

“Being cheated on is an experience akin to trauma,” said Gordon.Kristina Gordon, associate professor of psychology at UT Knoxville, discovered there is an art to forgiveness. Gordon performed a separate analysis in which she studied six couples trying to recover from an affair with the help of therapy. She tested a three-part model she developed and discovered that, when done correctly, forgiveness has the power to salvage a broken marriage. At the end of the process, all injured partners had cited moving closer to forgiving their significant others.

“Being cheated on is an experience akin to trauma,” said Gordon. “It turns your life upside down. The betrayal is often unexpected and destructive to the injured partner’s feelings of well-being, leaving them feeling defenseless, victimized and confused.”

In the first stage, the injured partners must assess their current thoughts and feelings about the betrayal and its effect on them and their relationship with their partners. Many of the couples in Gordon’s study suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms such as emotional shock, distress and distorted thoughts, which can derail the forgiveness process.

In the second stage, the injured partners must make sense of why the betrayal occurred and what it implies about their relationships. Therapy sessions that integrated the contributing factors into how the affair unfolded were critical to treatment success. Gordon discovered significant external stressors such as major moves, pregnancies and problems with in-laws as recurring contributing factors.

Finally, in the third phase, the injured partners move on from the distorted traumatized view of their partner as someone they need to guard themselves against and see the partner as a person again.

“Forgiveness is not reconciling, forgetting or excusing the affair. It is not an immediate or one-time event,” said Gordon. “Forgiveness is a process, an opportunity to gain an understanding about your partner, your relationship and yourself. It is a release from being dominated by negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors.”