There’s all sorts of antiquated marriage advice out there, but it turns out that there’s one relationship trope that actually holds true: “Happy wife, happy life.”
A recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that men who are unhappily married may still be happy with their lives overall — as long as their wives are satisfied with their marriages.
“A wife’s happiness in the marriage has the power to overtake a husband’s marital unhappiness to make his overall life quite pleasant,” Deborah Carr, professor of sociology at Rutgers University and co-author of the study, told The Huffington Post. “That was the finding that makes people say, ‘Happy wife, happy life.’ But it cuts the other way, ‘Miserable wife, miserable life.'”
Husbands and wives are socialized to handle the ups and downs of marriage differently.
Carr and her co-author Vicki A. Freedman, a professor at the University of Michigan, analyzed daily diary entries from the 2009 Disability and Use of Time supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a longitudinal household survey of 18,000 individuals conducted by the University of Michigan. Both spouses surveyed were at least 50 years old and at least one spouse was 60 years old or older. Marital satisfaction was rated in each entry on a scale of one to four.
Husbands who rated the quality of their marriage a one but whose wives rated the marriage a four were happy with their lives overall, while husbands who rated their marriages a one whose wives also rated the marriage a one reported low overall well-being. The inverse wasn’t true for wives: Women’s happiness didn’t seem to be affected by husbands’ satisfaction with their marriages.
One reason for this discrepancy in happiness, Carr explained, is that if a man is unhappy in the relationship but the wife is happy, she’s more likely to provide him benefits that enhance his overall life — she’ll engage in sexual relations, provide emotional support and take on household chores.
As for why women’s happiness doesn’t seem to be affected by their husbands’ marital satisfaction, Carr conjectured that wives generally have no idea if husbands are happy with marriages or not because men aren’t socialized to discuss feelings, good or bad.
“If a wife is unhappy with her marriage, she’s going to do something about it,” Carr said. “She might complain; she might be less forthcoming with love and support. Men are not the ones to say, ‘We need to talk about the relationship.’ If they’re unhappy, they’re going to sit in their chair and stew over it.”
Gender differences could explain why wives tend to be less satisfied with marriages overall.
Like many researchers before her, Carr found that men tended to rate their marriages higher than women did. (She also found this in a previous study she co-authored.) This could be because women are socialized to think about their relationships and scrutinize them more than men, Carr said. But she also had another guess as to why men seem to be happier with marriage.
“If a marriage is good, it often is due to the stuff the the wife is doing, the love and support that she’s giving,” Carr said. “Consequently, that means the husband gets more.”
Wives in the generation surveyed tended to take on more housework, like food preparation and household chores, with 59 percent of their activities taking place in the home. Plus, Carr found that a spouse’s illness only affected women’s happiness and had no effect on the life satisfaction of men. This is because women tend to take on caregiving responsibilities for husbands while husbands generally let friends or children tend to wives who were ill.
Clearly, the scales are often tipped in the husband’s favor when it comes to partner support, which could explain all of the research claiming that marriage is good for men’s health (but not necessarily women’s).
The best fix? Open communication.
The problem with this imbalance and discrepancy in marital satisfaction is that it’s not the best recipe for a sustainable relationship, Carr said. She recommended that husbands and wives take the time to talk about what’s bad and good in their marriage regularly so that they’re on the same page.
“Maybe they won’t use the most elegant language, but just let them be heard and hear them on their own terms” she said. “A clunky conversation is better than no conversation.”
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