For Worse, Then for Better
Tiffany Sharples, Time Magazine
Why facing stressful life events early in coupledom can lead to longevity. Just a few months before John Gottman, a leading American marriage researcher and psychologist, was to be married, his father died, leaving Gottman to contend with overwhelming loss during what should have been one of the happiest times of his life. No one would have blamed him for putting the wedding on hold. But in the end, Gottman says, the strain of dealing with his grief made him that much more devoted to his future bride. “My wife helped me through it,” he says. “I was able to cope with the loss, and it was really a bonding experience.”
Few couples would choose to marry during periods of severe relationship stress, but then, trials come unexpectedly–you can’t plan for layoffs, illness or a raging wildfire that forces a change in wedding venue 24 hours before the big event. That bad start, however, can have benefits. While an abundance of research shows that stressful life events often amplify a couple’s problems–turning a husband’s short temper into abuse, for example–and increase the likelihood of divorce, studies also show that hardship can have an upside. For some couples, it’s protective, helping solidify their commitment into an unshakable us-vs.-the-world resolve. Data from the Great Depression suggest, for instance, that economic adversity held many couples together. “Those families who were cohesive before the Depression, they banded together as a team and really became more cohesive in dealing with the economic crisis,” says Gottman–surely good news for the untold numbers of newlyweds who have faced job loss or foreclosure in the past year.
Surviving the gauntlet of misfortune early in a relationship can be a valuable litmus test, say counselors. A relationship crisis “smashes the illusion of invulnerability,” say William Doherty, a psychologist and marriage researcher who runs the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota. That illusion, he says, “was going to go away anyway, and I don’t think there’s any great loss to it going away sooner than later.”
So what about all those unlucky couples whose early years are marked by nothing but peace and happiness–what is their litmus test? There are two key predictors of a resilient relationship, experts say: mutual support and a willingness of sacrifice. In a recent study of newlyweds who became first-time parents, Gottman found that two-thirds suffered sharp drops in happiness during their child’s infancy, under the strain of new parenthood. But for one-third of couples, the experience was cohesive and increased intimacy. Gottman says he could predict which couples would blossom under stress: those in whom, years before, he had observed better communication and more support. “Even at the time of the wedding, the men were more respectful of their wives, prouder of them” he says.
Beyond respect and pride–and even love–it may be the willingness to sacrifice that leads to a lasting marriage, according to researchers. In a 2006 study by Scott Stanley, the director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, and colleagues found that the willingness to forgo personal interest and put a partner’s needs ahead of one’s own was directly linked to a long-lasting, happy marriage–provided that such sacrifices weren’t damaging or one-directional. “If your partner has a really big opportunity to sacrifice because of some crisis in your life, and they don’t, that’s pretty bad.” says Stanley.
But before you go seeking disaster just to test your spouse, remember that resilience evolves over time, as long as couples make it a mutual priority–and that takes patience. Keep in mind also that over the long haul, the health and mental benefits of marriage are countless. Says Diane Sollee, a marriage and family therapist and the founder of SmartMarriages.com: “You’ve got to know that you actually do better if you hang in there.”