The science of a happy marriage

How do you react when your partner arrives home on an emotional high?

Story highlights

  • Study suggests marital happiness involves sensitivity to partners' positive emotions
  • Women in study showed special sensitivity to their husbands' unexpected emotions

Have you ever waited with excitement to share some amazingly good news with your partner, only to experience a surge of frustration and resentment when he or she barely reacts to your announcement? As a society, we place a huge amount of emphasis on being there for each other when we're in need, but past research has actually shown that relationship satisfaction is influenced as much, if not more, by how we react to each other's good news. Whereas emotional support from a partner when we're down can have the unfortunate side-effect of making us feel indebted and more aware of our negative emotions, a partner's positive reaction to our good news can magnify the benefits of that good fortune and make us feel closer to them.

Now an unusual brain-imaging study, published in Human Brain Mapping, has added to this picture, showing that the relationship satisfaction of longtime married elderly women is particularly related to the neural activity they show in response to their husbands' displays of positive emotion, rather than negative emotion.
Psychologist Raluca Petrican at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto and her colleagues at the University of Toronto recruited 14 women with an average age of 72 who'd been married for an average of 40 years. The researchers scanned these women's brains as they watched some carefully prepared videos.
    The silent 10-second videos showed each woman's husband or a stranger displaying an emotion that mismatched the way the video clip was labeled in a one-sentence description on the screen. For example, the clip might show the husband smiling or laughing about a happy memory (such as the first house they bought), but the video was labeled misleadingly to suggest that the man was showing this emotion while talking about a sad memory (such as the time he got fired). Other videos showed the reverse mismatch: a negative emotional display, ostensibly shown while talking about the memory of a happy event.
    Essentially, the videos were designed to make the women feel like they were seeing their husband or the stranger display a surprising emotional reaction that didn't match their own feelings. The real-world equivalent would be a situation