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‘Happy wife, happy life’ is wrong. Women not relationship ‘barometers’


As a predictive diagnostic indicator of the health of a relationship, women’s sense of satisfaction is no better than men’s

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As a deeply established piece of romantic folklore for men, the adage “happy wife, happy life,” has a lot going for it. It’s a catchy rhyme, for example, and it encourages a determined selflessness in a husband, an orientation toward compromise, and keen interest in how his wife feels at any given moment. If she is happy, the wisdom goes, all is happy. There are worse guiding principles.

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On the other hand, new research out of the University of Alberta suggests this rule is completely wrong.

It has no predictive power. Women are not the barometers of a relationship’s health. As a predictive diagnostic indicator of the health of a relationship, women’s sense of satisfaction is no better than men’s. So the adage might be half right. Nothing rhymes with “husband,” though. So much for folklore.

All this is according to a new detailed statistical analysis of a large data set of daily diary entries by people in opposite sex relationships, and surveys of opposite-sex couples over time, tracking the relationship ups and downs of thousands of people.

“We found women are barometers. Their perceptions of how happy they are do predict their own experience in future, and also their partner’s. But we found the exact same pattern for men, and just as strongly,” said Matthew D. Johnson, professor of family science at the University of Alberta, whose research focuses on how couple relationships change and develop over time.

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His new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is co-authored with researchers from Europe and North America including Emily A. Impett, psychology professor at the University of Toronto, who gathered much of the data.

“We think this obviously challenges this accepted lore that women’s experience takes primacy or is intrinsically more diagnostic,” Johnson said Tuesday in an interview. “We find men’s experiences matter just as much, for their predictive value at least.”

“Happy wife, happy life” has a strong theoretical context, which may explain some of its durability in both science and culture. According to some theories, women’s experience should be more predictive of the long-term health of an intimate relationship. Evolutionary psychology points to the cost differential of pregnancy: high for the woman, low for the man. Social psychology points to the roles society expects of women, as emotional experts and managers of their own domestic lives. In both cases, the idea is that women are inclined for good reason to care more about the health of their relationships, so their views are likely to be better predictors for how things will work out.

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But that is where theory breaks down into untested fuzziness.

“Nobody really knows how far out women should have this more predictive ability,” Johnson said.

And it had hardly been tested, they found. Nor was it clear whether the test should happen at a day-by-day scale, or more long-term.

They took daily diary studies from North America of 901 couples, and a German longer-term survey of 3,405 couples. These made for two parallel studies.

“Testing the barometer idea across two timescales — day-to-day and year-to-year — is an important feature of this investigation, as there has yet to be any specification of the period over which the barometer phenomenon should be evident. If we extend the barometer metaphor (i.e., something that registers and predicts short-term changes), we might expect more consistent evidence on the daily level, such that fluctuations in women’s relationship satisfaction should more robustly predict their own and/or their partner’s satisfaction across daily intervals compared to fluctuations in men’s relationship satisfaction. Alternatively, prior studies invoked the barometer metaphor to explain findings based on the analysis of long-term panel data, indicating many scholars view this as a longer-term process,” the paper reads.

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“Counter to expectations from long-held views in relationship science, our analysis of over 50,000 reports of relationship satisfaction from more than 4,000 mixed-gender couples found no evidence that women’s satisfaction was a stronger predictor of couples’ relationship satisfaction than men’s satisfaction at the daily or yearly level,” it reads.

One key finding, Johnson said, was that fluctuations in relationship satisfaction do not reverse minute by minute. They linger, both the good times and the bad. The paper describes this as “emotional residue.”

“All of us could do a little better, being reflective and aware of those fluctuations in how things are going, and knowing that if things are abnormal for you, ether good or bad, chances are that’s an indication things continuing either short or long term in going the same way,” Johnson said in the interview.

If things are going well, be aware, figure out why, and “harness that,” he said. Likewise, pay attention to the negative, manage it and contain it “so that less than typical happiness doesn’t continue to follow you into the future.

It doesn’t rhyme, but as a rule for romance, that’s now on more solid experimental footing.

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