Memory Bias Leads To Happiest Marriages, Says UF Researcher
GAINESVILLE — Doses of self-delusion can be very useful in sustaining marital bliss, says a University of Florida researcher of newlyweds.
While most marital research has focused on how spouses communicate, UF psychology Professor Benjamin Karney is studying the frequently overlooked role of memory. Specifically, his research shows that satisfied couples often remember the past as worse than it was, to make the present seem better by comparison.
“The advice to husbands and wives to communicate better puts a lot of pressure and blame on couples,” said Karney, who has interviewed several hundred couples about their marriages. “It says, If only you communicated better, you’d be happy.’ I don’t think that’s true, nor does the research show it to be true.”
In one of a series of studies in the Los Angeles area spanning 27 years of research data, Karney found that people most likely to express happiness in their marriage over time were those who use their memory selectively to feel good about their past. Even though these people said their marriages were growing stronger, interviews of them talking about the relationship show it was actually getting worse, he said.
“When it comes to marital happiness, it’s good to be able to tell yourself a story you like to believe,” Karney said. “And so, it’s OK not to be accurate about the past if it makes you feel better about the present.”
Personal communication, a centerpiece of marital therapy and self-help books, is only part of the story in predicting whether marriages succeed or fail, Karney said. Although the way couples treat each other is important, focusing exclusively on communication fails to take into account people’s personalities, family backgrounds or what kind of challenges they face in their daily lives, he said.
“It’s easy to be married if you’re healthy, wealthy and well-employed,” he said. “It’s difficult if you’re sick, unemployed or have in-laws living with you because they have nowhere else to go.”
Karney said altering memories about marital bliss is much like the yearning many people have for what they think are the good old days. “It’s a similar process in reverse when people are nostalgic for the past. Dissatisfied with the present, they exaggerate how good or innocent the past was in order to justify their current feelings.”
In one study involving videotaped interviews of newlyweds every six months for four years, Karney found no difference in initial happiness between those who eventually divorced and those who stayed together. “Contrary to what some people might think, people who divorce in the early years of marriage are not the ones who start out less happy,” he said.
The way satisfaction changes over time — not the absolute level of satisfaction in the marriage — predicts divorce, Karney said. Couples who break up are those who become aware — for whatever reason — that their satisfaction has waned over the years, he said.
“They have the feeling I was happy once, but now I’m not happy,’” Karney said. “That is the worst feeling one can have in a marriage.”
Actually, most people’s marital satisfaction declines over time, even though they think it is improving, Karney said. “On the whole, even the best marriages get a little less happier over the years,” he said. “That’s probably not surprising considering how happy newlyweds are. The most anyone might hope for is to stay at that level.”
In the future, Karney said he hopes to learn more about how important beliefs change despite people’s motivation for them to remain the same. “On their wedding day, everyone thinks their partner is wonderful and plans to stay together, and they are highly motivated to keep believing that,” he said. “How does the feeling I love my spouse’ change over time to I don’t want to be with my spouse anymore?’”
Thomas Bradbury, a psychology professor at UCLA, said Karney’s research “yields some startling new findings about how couples think back on the history of their relationship. The comparative processes that Karney is discovering are an important clue to how spouses sustain their relationship, and they will no doubt lead to a revision of prevailing views on how marriages succeed and fail.”