Saturday, January 25, 2014

Can optimism lead to a better marriage?


Can optimism lead to a better marriage?

A recent study suggests that one type of optimism is helpful and another type is not so helpful. In their review of research, Lisa Neff of the University of Texas at Austin and Andrew Geers of the University of Toledo, reported an emerging belief that optimistic expectations would promote better relationships because people should be motivated to overcome difficulties.

In a previous post I reviewed some research on optimism and spirituality. Most religions strongly support marriage. In this post I look at a study about optimism in a marriage.

When there is conflict, optimists are more constructive and they ending up feeling more satisfied with the outcome of the conflict. Also, the relationship has a better chance of survival.

In a 2-year study, optimists had fewer drops in satisfaction than did pessimists.

So what’s not to like about optimism?

Some research suggests that expecting great outcomes can create a false sense of security, which prevents people from working on troublesome issues. Sometimes overoptimistic people act like everything will work out okay. This neglectful attitude can let problems worsen. In this case, optimism is a liability—not an asset.

How might optimism be helpful?
    If couples find that experiences confirm their expectations then a positive upward spiral can develop.

What’s the difference between general and specific optimism?
         General optimism is like a disposition or a personality trait.
“Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad,” or
“ I’m always optimistic about my future”
Examples of specific optimism focused on a relationship are:
 "I expect my partner and I will always communicate well,” or
“I expect my partner and I will always be affectionate with one another”

Some details of the current study
The researchers recruited newlywed couples who were in their first marriage and had been married less than 6 months. There were 61 couples. On average, the wives were 23.5 years old and the husbands were 25.6 years old. Most couples identified themselves as Christian (64%), white (85%) with incomes in the range of $25,000 to $35,000 per year.

The couples completed questionnaires early on and at two follow up periods—6-months and 1-year.

So what happened?
Those with high dispositional optimism consistently participated in more constructive contributions to solving problems. And those low in optimism reduced their problem-solving ability.

In contrast with general dispositional optimism, optimism focused on the relationship was a liability. When there were problems to resolve, those low on relationship focused optimism performed better than those high on relationship optimism. Things were worse for those with high relationship optimism when couples faced serious challenges.

Spouses with higher dispositional optimism were more stable in marital satisfaction levels.  Those higher in relationship focused optimism began at a high level of marital satisfaction but ended up with steeper declines as the relationship continued.

This high level of initial optimism and steep declines finding is interesting because of research indicating couples high in love and affection that drops off considerably during the first year are at high risk for divorce.

It is not clear from this study what level of optimism is best. Older research on optimism suggests a moderate level of optimism is best (Baumeister, 1989).


Neff, L.A. & Geers, A.L. ( 2013). Optimistic expectations in early marriage: A resource of vulnerability for adaptive relationship functioning, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105, 38-60.

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