Researchers found that couples were less likely to experience steep declines in marital satisfaction if they had accurate pictures of their relationship - even if that picture was not ideal.
The key is for couples' expectations to reflect their skills at dealing with problems and issues in their relationship, said James McNulty, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University's Mansfield campus.
"Over the long term, it is important for marriage partners to have accurate knowledge of their relationship's strengths and weaknesses," McNulty said. "Satisfaction goes down when a spouse's expectations don't fit with reality."
The results run counter to the advice of other researchers and therapists who believe couples should always have high expectations for their marriage.
"There's been a lot of emphasis on the idea of positive illusions in marriage," McNulty said. "Sure, it may make you happy in the short-run to think your spouse is better than he or she actually is, but if the reality doesn't match the image, eventually your satisfaction is going to decline."
McNulty conducted the study as part of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Florida. His co-author was his dissertation advisor, Benjamin Karney. Their study appears in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The research involved 82 couples who joined the study within a few months of their first marriage. At the beginning of the project, the participants were videotaped while talking about an issue of difficulty in their marriage. The researchers viewed this tape and then rated couples' problem-solving skills.
The participating couples also completed questionnaires that examined their levels of satisfaction with their marriage, their expectations for future satisfaction, and expectations for the way their partners would behave. They also completed a questionnaire aimed at assessing a second relationship skill - whether the participants are likely to blame their spouses for problems that could arise in their marriage.
Each of the spouses was re-tested at six-month intervals for four years - for a total of eight tests to gauge marriage satisfaction. (Of the 82 couples, 17 were divorced by the end of the study. All but five were married long enough to be included in the analysis.)
The results showed that participants who had high expectations for happiness at the beginning of their marriage - but poor relationship skills - showed steep declines in marital satisfaction over the first four years of marriage. Those with low expectations and low skills didn't show equivalent declines in satisfaction.
Importantly, McNulty's study suggests that lowering expectations will not benefit all couples. Couples in the study who did have good relationship skills at the beginning of the relationship actually experienced steeper declines in satisfaction when they had less positive expectations but more stable satisfaction when they had more positive expectations.
"Many people would think couples with good relationship skills but low expectations would be pleasantly surprised by the positive outcomes that would come about because of their good relationship skills," he said. "But if they have low expectations, they may not put forth the effort to work on their relationship. So their low expectations really prevent them from taking advantage of their skills and achieving their potential satisfaction."
McNulty said the situation with married couples is comparable to that of students. A student who is intelligent and has the skills to get "A" grades - but doesn't have high expectations of succeeding- will not put forth the effort into studying and doing what is necessary to achieve high grades. The same is true of married people who have good relationship skills but don't expect high levels of satisfaction in marriage.
On the other hand, a student who does not have the skills to get "A" grades - but still expects to get "A" grades in all of his classes - may be just setting himself up for frustration and disappointment, he said.
"Psychologically, they would be better off if they realized they won't get 'As' but still worked hard enough to get grades of 'B' or 'C,'" McNulty said. "In the same way, couples who don't have good relationship skills have to be realistic about their marriage. That doesn't mean they give up - they just need to try harder to improve their relationship skills and know to expect some bumps in the road."
Couples who have poor relationship skills and low expectations obviously aren't in an ideal situation, McNulty said. Their levels of satisfaction with their marriage are lower than average. "But they don't experience a big drop in their satisfaction over time. Thus, their situation is preferable to those with poor skills and high expectations, who start off with lower levels of satisfaction and then drop even further," he said.
McNulty is continuing this line of research at Ohio State. He has recruited 72 new couples whom he will follow over the next several years to further probe the relationship between expectations and satisfaction.
The current study was supported in part by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.