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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

What Life Satisfaction Means for Marriage

An engaged woman and man will carry something into their future life together that is not mentioned often, though it appears to be highly beneficial in marriage: each one’s overall sense of satisfaction with life.

That’s the first point. The second point is this:

When already-married couples take steps to improve their life together and heighten their marital satisfaction, they may experience a spillover effect that yields a greater overall sense of satisfaction with life.

Does that sound complicated? Maybe it is. But researchers in the marriage field work diligently to understand what the multifaceted notions of “life satisfaction” and “marital satisfaction” have to do with each other.

A report published this year by a team of marriage researchers at the University of Denver suggests that marriage and life satisfaction are tangled together in complex ways. The researchers want to find out “how romantic relationship quality and life satisfaction are related” for couples over time. (The report appeared in the February edition of the Journal of Family Psychology.)

According to the report, it is possible “when getting married” that “higher life satisfaction” serves as “a protective factor” that will contribute “to future marital adjustment.”

One hope of these researchers is that a better understanding of the relationship between life satisfaction and marriage will cast light on the workings of lasting marriages and provide insights for those who counsel troubled couples, prepare couples for marriage or in other ways help couples strengthen their marriages.

Steps to Improve a Marriage

Scott Stanley, one of the Denver University researchers, spoke with me about key findings of this research. The well-known writer and speaker said, “We’re showing that life satisfaction plays a substantial role in how marriages unfold in terms of overall adjustment.”

Thus, life satisfaction quite likely is “something people bring into marriages that partly determines how their marriages will go over time,” Stanley noted.

Still, he explained, when couples work to improve their marriages “in meaningful ways,” whether by seeking professional assistance, pursuing relationship education or just investing in their marriage through “thoughtful effort,” their overall satisfaction with life also is likely to expand.

Stanley said: “In a generally pretty good marriage, spouses do their marriage and themselves a favor to be thoughtful and look for ways to be connected and kind and giving.”

He finds it “interesting that changes in marital adjustment matter to overall life satisfaction.” But he affirmed that nothing in this research suggests that troubled individuals should look ahead to marriage as a panacea for low satisfaction with life.

“Generally speaking, marriage is associated with greater life happiness,” Stanley observed. But while pointing out the “general life benefits of marriage,” he also commented that people still need to “pick mates carefully.”

He expressed concern that those who start out “with pretty low life satisfaction, for whatever reasons, may struggle in marriage.”

In a noteworthy point, the report suggests that those who assist couples with their marriages may also want to consider aiding them as individuals. “The integration of strategies that increase individual well-being into couple interventions may bolster the effectiveness of such efforts,” it says.

What “Life Satisfaction” Means

This research lends support to the idea that “helping people to improve their relationships may increase overall life satisfaction.” Moreover, it indicates that “changes in life satisfaction over time impact marital adjustment.”

It ought to be noted, of course, that “life satisfaction” itself is a complex notion – a somewhat subjective assessment of one’s well-being. Just as people do not agree on the meaning of “happiness,” their notions of “life satisfaction” do not necessarily converge either.

Two expert scholars on the topic of life satisfaction, William Pavot and Ed Diener, wrote in 2008 that “for any individual person, a number of personality variables and many situational or life circumstance variables influence her or his judgment of life satisfaction” (Journal of Positive Psychology).

If “life satisfaction” is not a rigid, confining concept, however, it is a recurring theme in marriage studies today.

In their report, the University of Denver researchers say they do not know of other studies that have examined both of the following points:

— How life satisfaction “predicts marital quality and vice versa.”

— How changes over time in each of these areas – marital quality and life satisfaction – “are associated with future levels of the other.”

Perhaps there is good news in the report of a win-win kind for those concerned about the future of marriage. Couples not only can be helped to grow and to make positive changes in their marriages, but doing so may result both in more satisfaction with their marriages and with their lives overall.

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.