5 Things UT Science Tells Us About Healthy Couples

January 24, 2020 • by Esther Robards-Forbes
A closeup of a couple clasping hands

In honor of National Spouses Day (January 26), we decided to check in with a UT scientist whose area of expertise covers the nature of healthy romantic relationships and marriages. Lisa Neff, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences who holds the Amy Johnson McLaughlin Centennial Professorship in Home Economics, has spent years studying what keeps relationships strong, couples happy and marriages intact. Neff has several tips for more perfect unions.

1.Take time for the little things together.

Small, everyday positive interactions, such as sharing a meal with your partner or having a laugh, can counteract negative interactions that inevitably come along, such as cranky remarks. This works on the theory of emotional capital, Neff said. Positive interactions are like making a deposit to your relationship bank account. Negative interactions are like withdrawals from that account.

"A simple way to keep a relationship strong is to infuse every day with positive moments," Neff said. "Build up your emotional reserves to combat those negative events. People who have more emotional capital are happier in the face of that emotional negative."

Couples with more of those small, positive moments were also more likely to interpret negative actions by their partner in a more forgiving light, giving them the benefit of the doubt.

"Those positive moments affect the way you see your partner," Neff said. "When your partner messes up or breaks a promise, you interpret that in a more generous light rather than judging the person."

2. Be thoughtful when stressors from outside the marriage intrude.

Whether it is a stressful work environment, a sick parent or health problems, stress is something most adults deal with. Be aware of and deal with it – or it could spill over into the relationship.

"When we're stressed, we're more likely to be snippy or impatient," Neff said. "Our instinct is to withdraw. And when we do interact with our partner, it's likely to be negative and that undermines the non-stressed partner's ability to provide support."

Providing support to a stressed-out partner is a multi-step process. You have to recognize that your partner needs support, how (if at all) your partner wants to be supported and how best you can provide support. And then you have to provide it in a way that your stressed-out partner will interpret as supportive

Neff and her colleagues found that stressed-out partners, particularly husbands, were also less likely to notice when their partners needed support. And even when they noticed the need for support, stressed partners (again, particularly husbands) were less likely to provide that support. On top of that, stressed-out spouses were more likely to interpret their partners' behavior in a negative light.

"That's a cycle that once it gets going can be hard to get away from," Neff. 

3. Hold on to your friendships.

Every couple disagrees sometimes. Neff and her colleagues found that spouses who had friends they could count on when conflict arose in their marriage were less likely to get stressed out by these spats.

"We found that having a satisfying social network buffers spouses from the harmful physiological effects of everyday marital conflicts," said Neff. "Maintaining a few good friends is important to weathering the storms of your marriage."

The overall number of friends and family members doesn't appear to affect couples' ability to handle conflicts nearly as much as the quality of those outside relationships. Neff and her colleagues found that people who reported having even a few close friends or family members to talk to outside of their marriage experienced lower levels of stress when marital conflicts arose.

4. Balance staying positive with a willingness to tackle tougher terrain.

It's a good thing when partners are optimistic about their relationship or marriage in general, Neff said. That leads to constructive problem solving when conflicts arise.

"We found that when people had more optimistic global expectations for the relationship it was actually an incredibly positive resource for the relationship," Neff said. "So those couples, when difficulties arose, they were more active copers. They recognized the problem and they engaged in very positive active coping efforts to overcome that problem."

But when partners were optimistic about specific aspects of their relationship, such as thinking they'd always be able to communicate well or they would always have a good sex life, it made them less able to confront problems in the relationship and take steps to fix it.

"The idea is that those kinds of expectations just set you up for disappointment," Neff said. "They're too specific, and so when they're challenged it tends to hinder people's motivation to work through the problem. And so those individuals tended to avoid issues."

5. Savor your partner – as is.

Rose-colored glasses do no favors in long-term relationships. Neff found that the happiest newlyweds tend to be realistic about their partners' strengths and shortcomings.

"What I've found is that positive biases are very healthy at the global level, but it's important to be realistic about your partner's specific traits," Neff said. "Couples who view their partner in this way, so they think their partner is the kindest, most wonderful person out there but they recognize my partner's kind of messy and you know they don't always do things perfectly, those partners are the ones who are least likely to divorce."