To find out, McNulty gathered data from 135 newlywed couples in Tennessee. Each person in the study privately filled out surveys that assessed how high their standards were, along with how satisfied they were in their marriage and their degree of marital problems. The researchers also videotaped discussions between partners to measure their levels of indirect hostility: present when someone in the couple doesn’t outright address their concerns or indirectly blames their partner.
Twice a year for four years, the couples reported their marital satisfaction.
Across the board, newlyweds were pretty satisfied with their marriages and had high standards. But higher standards were a bad thing for spouses who didn’t work as well together or were more indirectly hostile. Conversely, when couples like these had lower standards, they tended to be happier in their marriages. “People who have weaker abilities, either because they have poor communication skills, external obstacles and financial pressures that stress the marriage, or personal vulnerabilities, do best if they demand less—otherwise they risk becoming disillusioned,” McNulty says.
It’s tricky to know which camp one’s marriage falls into. “There’s no ‘test,’ so to speak,” McNulty says. “This is what makes things challenging: somehow we have to know what we are capable of achieving before we achieve it.” But marriages take work—and partners who don’t have the time or will to work at theirs might be better off expecting less from their unions.
However, the results should be encouraging for couples faced with problems they feel they can solve. For them, holding their marriage to the highest standard might motivate them to reach it. “If you can improve something about your relationships, do so,” McNulty says.
And if you know that you can’t? “Accept that,” he says.