The Science of a Happy Marriage

In an article by Dr. Christian Jarret, author of The Science of Us, Jarret gives rise to tantalizing questions and ideas regarding humans’ reactions to their partners’ unexplainable display of positive and negative emotions.

While supporting your partner during their time of need undoubtedly shows that you love and care for them, past studies show that how one reacts to their partner’s good news has a stronger influence on relationship satisfaction.  Surprising right?  Well, maybe not so much.

A recent publication by Human Brain Mapping reveals a peculiar brain-imaging study showing that women display heightened neural activity in response to their husbands’ unexpected emotions.  In a study conducted by psychologist Raluca Petrican and her colleagues at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto at the University of Toronto, 14 women with an average age of 72 who had been married for an average of 40 years were recruited to have their brains scanned as they watched prepared videos.  The videos, carefully selected by the researchers, were soundless 10-second clips of each woman’s husband or of a stranger.  Each video contained a one-sentence description that was incongruent to the husbands or strangers’ displayed emotion.   For example, the clip might exhibit a scene of the husband smiling at the thought of happy memory, but the one-sentence description might read that the man was reminded of a sad memory (such as the time he got fired).  Conversely, another video might show the reverse mismatch: a negative emotional reaction, facetiously shown with a one-sentence description of happy memory (such as the first house the couple bought together).

The purpose of the videos was to make the women feel like they were seeing their husband or the stranger display a surprisingly emotional reaction that didn’t match their own feelings.  The videos were designed to serve as real-world equivalents to situations in which a husband is happy about something that his wife does not understand.  The questions: whether she will notice, and whether she is more sensitive to this incompatible emotion in her husband’s behavior than she would be with a stranger?

The first notable finding from this design was that the women showed heightened brain activity, suggesting more mental and emotional neural processing when watching the videos of their husbands compared with videos of the strangers.  However, this only applied to the videos in which the husbands displayed a mismatched positive emotion.  During the videos in which the men displayed a particular negative emotion, the women’s brains showed an equivalent amount of neural activity to the husband’s unusual expressions as to the strangers.

This result is congruent with past research.

“This jibes with the past research that’s shown it’s our response

to our partners’ positive news that is all-important for a relationship

satisfaction. Remember that these women had been married for

decades, so it’s likely that they and their husbands have been doing

something right relationship-wise. The brain-imaging data suggests a part

of the reason might be that the women are acutely tuned to when their

husbands are showing happiness that’s personal to them (rather than

common to both partners,” Jarret said.

A second important finding from this study emerged after Petrican and her colleagues asked the women to complete a questionnaire.  According to the questionnaire, the women’s levels of marital satisfaction correlated with the amount of neural processing they showed in response to their husbands’ exhibition of positive and negative emotions.  This convolutes the prior interpretation that the women’s overall level of brain activity betrayed a special sensitivity only in response to their husband’s unusual display of positive emotions.

However, the special importance of how we respond to our partners’ positive emotion was supported by another key finding.  According to the study, when watching their spouses, women who scored higher on relationship satisfaction showed greater brain activation in regions thought to contain neurons considered influential for empathy, called mirror neurons than they did when watching a stranger.  Furthermore, this enhanced mirror-neuron activity was especially present for the videos showing their husbands’ positive, rather than negative, emotion.

“Again, this appears to support the idea that marital happiness goes

hand in hand with sensitivity to our partners’ positive emotion (though

the researchers acknowledge a different or complementary interpretation

that person in happy relationships have a suppressed response to

their partner’s incongruent negative emotion).”

Despite the abundant results of the study deeming the women’s reaction to their husbands’ emotions as an overarching factor to marital satisfaction, Jarret warns us that it is important to proceed with caution when analyzing and interpreting these complex findings.  This study exclusively focuses on the wives’ reactions to their husbands’ emotions, leaving room for lingering questions- What are the reactions of husbands’ to their wives’ emotions?  What influence does the response of husbands’ reaction to their wives’ emotions have on the level of happiness of both parties in the marriage?  It is important to consider both parties before concluding that the way one reacts to their partners’ news is the key to a successful marriage.

Nonetheless, the results of the brain-imaging data are intriguing in their implications of people in long-term, committed relationships.  At a neural level, those in lasting, steadfast relationships are particularly sensitive to their partner’s positive emotion, even more so when the emotion contradicts their own.  These findings parallel other past research suggesting, for example, that people who intertwine their emotions with those of their partners (to the extent in which they no longer are able to differentiate which initial emotion is their own) are often seen as more controlling and overbearing than their emotionally independent counterparts.

Altogether, the entire body of research conducted by Petrican and her team gives us reason to stop and think.  How do you react when your partner returns home in a state of inexplicable bliss?  Do you resent them or are you supportive?  Are you curious or do you notice only if you are feeling joyful, too?


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