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How to build a happy marriage: 7 science-based tips
Scientists may have cracked the code to happily ever after
Science!
Science! (Thinkstock)

The New York Times writer Tara Parker-Pope pulled together the science behind nuptial bliss in her book For Better. Here's her seven-point recipe for a happy, long-lasting marriage:

1. Celebrate good news
Turns out divorce isn't as much about increased negative things as it is about decreased positive things:

"We've found that the positives are more and more important," says Howard Markman, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver and one of the nation's leading marriage researchers. "It turns out that the amount of fun couples have and the strength of their friendships are a strong predictor of their future." [For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed]

What to do? Celebrate the good moments more, suggests Parker-Pope:

Research shows that couples who regularly celebrate the good times have higher levels of commitment, intimacy, trust, and relationship satisfaction… It's not enough that your partner knows that you take pride in his or her accomplishments. You have to show it. Making a fuss over the small, good things that happen every day can boost the health of your marriage. For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed]

(Here's the best way to react to your spouse's good news.)

2. Five to one
How many good moments do you need to make up for the bad ones? Research has a ratio for you: Five to one. You don't need to count every single positive and negative but if they're nearly equal, your chance of divorce shoots way up.

As University of Washington researchers reviewed the data, a striking pattern emerged. In stable marriages, there are at least five times more positive interactions than negative ones. When the ratio starts to drop, the marriage is at high risk for divorce. In real life, no couple can keep a running tally of positive and negative displays. There are hundreds of them that happen in any given day. But in a practical sense, the lesson is that a single "I'm sorry" after bad behavior isn't enough. For every snide comment or negative outburst in a marriage, a person needs to ramp up the positives so the good-to-bad ratio doesn't fall to a risky level. [For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed]

(Here's more about the five to one rule.)

3. Keep your standards high
More and more people are told their expectations for marriage are too high. Research says the reverse: People who expect more, get more. Don't settle for a second-rate marriage.

Dr. Baucom found that people who have idealistic standards, who really want to be treated well and who want romance and passion from their marriage, end up getting that kind of marriage. Men and women with low standards, who don't expect good treatment, communication, or romance, end up in relationships that don't offer those things… Husbands and wives who hold their partners to a reasonably high standard have better marriages. If you expect a better, more satisfying relationship, you improve your chances of having one. [For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed]

4. Stay close to family and friends
Today marriage has become a two person cocoon that we expect to get all our support and intimacy from. That's not healthy or realistic. Keep friends and family in the loop. Your marriage should be your primary relationship — not your only one.

Dr. Coontz thinks all this togetherness is not necessarily good for couples. The way to strengthen a marriage, she argues, is to put fewer emotional demands on spouses. This doesn't mean losing emotional intimacy with your husband or wife. It just means that married couples have a lot to gain by fostering their relationships with family members and friends. The happiest couples, she says, are those who have interests and support "beyond the twosome." [For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed]

(Here's how to improve your friendships.)

5. Don't expect your spouse to make you happy
Research shows most people's happiness eventually returns to their natural baseline, even after very positive events like a wedding. Happiness lies within the individual and expecting a spouse to change that forever is unrealistic and unfair.

What is surprising is that research shows happiness is relatively stable. A major life event (like marriage or the birth of a child) may offer a short-term happiness boost, but studies suggest most people return to their own personal happiness "set point." If you ranked your level of happiness as a 7.5 on a scale of one to 10, research shows that most of the time, the events of your life won't change that. You'll pretty much be a 7.5 happy person all your life. [For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed]


(You can rise above your baseline — but most people don't do it right. Here's how to get happier.)

6. Have more sex
Over the course of a marriage, desire can lessen. Despite this, sex is healthy and has all kinds of biological and emotional benefits that should not be ignored.

Over time, regular sex can improve your mood, make you more patient, damp down anger, and lead to a better, more contented relationship. [For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed]

Parker-Pope doesn't mince words about the best course of action here. In For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed, she exhorts her readers to "Put down this book and go have sex with your husband or wife."

(Looking to heat it up? Here's how to be a good kisser.)

7. Excitement!
Couples don't need more "pleasant" activities — they need more exciting activities to hold on to the rush they felt when they first fell in love.

After ten weeks, the couples again took tests to gauge the quality of their relationships. Those who had undertaken the "exciting" date nights showed a significantly greater increase in marital satisfaction than the "pleasant" date night group… Protect your marriage by regularly trying new things and sharing new experiences with your spouse. Make a list of the favorite things you and your spouse do together, and then make a list of the fun things you'd like to try. Avoid old habits and make plans to do something fresh and different once a week. [For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed]


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