Authentic Happiness in Marriage

Yesterday, I read Parts I (Positive Emotion) & II (Strengths & Virtue) of Martin E. P. Seligman‘s Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment and I’ve just finished the chapter on Love in Part III (In the Mansions of Life).

In this chapter, Seligman shares his ideas on marriage. First, research shows that married people — across the seventeen nations that psychologists have surveyed — have the least depression (followed by never-married, divorced once, people co-habitating, and people divorced twice).

In other words, marriage — stable, pair-bonding, romantic love — is good for you! Why? Seligman says it is because marriage is the only arrangement that gives us all three kinds of love:

  • “love of the people who give us comfort, acceptance, and help, who bolster our confidence and guide us.” This is like a child’s love of his/her parents.
  • “people who depend on us for these provisions.” This is like a parent’s love for his/her child.
  • “romantic love – the idealization of another, idealizing their strengths and virtues and downplaying their shortcomings.”

In addition to these types of love, Authentic Happiness describes three styles of love:

  • secure – people who have this style of love tend to have relatively enduring and satisfying relationships. They are comfortable expressing their emotions and tend not to suffer from depression and other psychological disorders. The secure style benefits care giving, sex-life, and coping with bad events.
  • avoidant – people who have this style of love are less comfortable depending on others and opening up to others. These people tend to prefer their own autonomy — oftentimes at the expense of their close relationships. Although they often have high self-confidence, they sometimes come across as hostile or competitive by others, and this often interferes with their close relationships.
  • anxious – people who have this style of love tend to worry about whether their partners really love them and often fear rejection. Although they are comfortable expressing their emotions, preoccupied individuals often experience a lot of negative emotions, which can interfere with their relationships.

Seligman also recommends these books about marriage (though he thinks most books on marriage are focused on how to make a bad marriage tolerable instead of making a good marriage even better):

John Gottman is the University of Washington in Seattle professor who’s known for being able to predict divorce with over 90 percent accuracy by watching couples interact for twelve hours each day for an entire weekend in his “love lab” (a comfortable apartment with all the amenities of home plus two-way mirrors). The predictors of divorce are:

  • A harsh startup in disagreement
  • Criticism of partner, rather than complaints
  • Displays of contempt
  • Hair-trigger defensiveness
  • Lack of validation (particularly stonewalling)
  • Negative body language

In addition, Gottman accurately predicts which marriages will improve by simply devoting an extra five hours per week to their marriage:

  • Partings – before these couples say goodbye each morning, they find out one thing that each is going to do that day (2 minutes per day, 5 days a week)
  • Reunions – at the end of each workday, these couples have a low-stress reunion conversation (20 minutes per day, 5 days a week)
  • Affection – touching, grabbing, holding, and kissing, all laced with tenderness and forgiveness (5 minutes per day, 7 days a week)
  • One weekly date – just the happy couple in a relaxed atmosphere, updating their love (2 hours once a week)
  • Admiration and appreciation – every day, genuine affection and appreciation is given at least once (5 minutes per day, 7 days a week)

Other researchers have shown that optimism helps marriage. As Seligman states, “Satisfied couples see virtues in their partners that are not seen at all by their closest friends.”

Back to reading…just three more chapters to go: Raising Children, Reprise and Summary, and Meaning and Purpose.


2 responses to “Authentic Happiness in Marriage

  1. Pingback: The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt « Adventures in Reading

  2. Pingback: Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis: Chapters 5 - 11 « Adventures in Reading

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