Though the divorce rate in the United States is 50 per cent and growing, and higher for second and third marriages, over 90 per cent of people in Western cultures still decide to get married by the age of 50.
Why is the divorce rate so high? The influences on marital success are varied and many. Though it’s true “no fault” divorce laws that began taking effect in the 1970s could have something to do with it along with improved women’s rights and increased financial status, what about the way in which people approach the important decision about whom they will spend their life with? Could that be having an effect?
According to a new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, marital happiness may depend on a combination of your partner’s traits and whether you are a “maximizer” or “satisficer” when it comes to the decision to marry.
“Making the decision to say ‘I do’ is extremely important,” study author Juliana French told us. “We wanted to understand the role that decision-making processes play in people’s long-term marriages.”
The study examined how differences in the way that people make important and everyday decisions—from what to wear one day to selecting a relationship partner—might impact how satisfied they are as newlyweds, as well as how satisfied they remain over time.
Research shows that the state of your marital bliss has a direct impact on your physical and mental well-being and if things aren’t going so well in the marriage department, your mortality risk is comparable to the ill-effects of smoking, alcohol use, and obesity.
So what’s better for you in the long run - maximizing or satisficing when deciding whom to marry?
“We expected that maximizers, individuals who engage in a more exhaustive search of options before making a decision (for example, checking all of your preset radio stations for the ‘best’ song before choosing one),” French told us, “would be more satisfied in their marriages if their partners actually had traits that they desired—physical attractiveness for men and status for women.”
How important is physical attractiveness to males when choosing a life-long partner? Researchers for the current study used evolutionary perspectives to guide their thinking. Though we tend to consciously rank qualities such as kindness, intelligence and a sense of humour above that of attractiveness, we also base our decisions on physical attractiveness because we have a tendency to believe that the more physically attractive you are, the healthier you are, and thus, the more able-bodied you will be in the relationship when it comes to kids and maintaining a home.
“As part of two studies of marital development, we recruited 233 newlywed couples who completed questionnaires that asked about their marital satisfaction, social status, and tendencies to maximize versus ‘satisfice’ when making decisions,” French told us. “We also trained coders to objectively rate each person’s physical attractiveness from photographs that we took at the start of the study.”
French says they then re-contacted those couples and sent them follow-up questionnaires measuring their marital satisfaction several times over the first three years of their marriages.
“We found that maximizing—but not satisficing—men were happier at the start of marriage and remained happier over time to the extent that they had physically attractive wives,” French told us. “Moreover, maximizing—but not satisficing—women who had high-status husbands seemed to be somewhat buffered from experiencing the declines in satisfaction that are typical during the early years of marriage.”
The results are consistent with theory and previous research on the relative importance of physical attractiveness and status for men and women in romantic relationships, though they also extend such research to show that such traits might be particularly important for some men and some women—those who are maximizers.
“Going forward, it may be important to consider other ways that people’s tendencies to maximize when making decisions might impact their long-term relationships,” French told us. “For example, how do they decide when it’s time to move in together? Do maximizers have difficulty taking those important relationship steps, or take longer to commit?”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com