Calling all husbands and wives: what do you expect to get out of your marriage? Be careful with your answer; a new study suggests that having high standards could help or hinder a relationship, depending on how much indirect hostility there is between a couple.

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Having high standards for a marriage could either improve or reduce marital satisfaction over time, depending on the levels of indirect hostility in a relationship.

Study author Dr. James McNulty, professor of psychology at Florida State University, publishes his findings in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Previous studies have suggested that spouses who have high standards for their marriage are more likely to be disappointed if these standards are not met, compared with spouses who have lower standards, and that this disappointment can harm relationships.

On the other hand, prior research has also suggested that having high standards for a marriage motivates couples to achieve such standards, which can strengthen a relationship.

To investigate the impact of marriage demands on relationships further, Dr. McNulty assessed 135 newlywed couples from Tennessee.

Each partner was required to complete a survey, in which they disclosed their own standards of marriage, the severity of any relationship problems they had and overall marriage satisfaction.

Additionally, each couple took part in a video-recorded marital discussion, allowing Dr. McNulty to assess the verbal communication and indirect hostility between each partner.

Every 6 months for 4 years, each couple continued to complete a questionnaire reporting their marital satisfaction.

According to the researcher, indirect hostility – such as stubbornness, procrastination and sullen behavior – is more damaging to verbal problem-solving than direct hostility.

“Prior work by our lab and others indicates that direct hostility, such as blaming the partner for a problem and demanding that the partner change, can have important benefits to some couples, specifically those who need to change,” says Dr. McNulty.

“The key is that direct hostility communicates that there is a need for change and even how each partner wants things to change. Our prior research indicates indirect hostility is harmful for all couples.”

On average, couples reported having relatively high standards for their marriage, said they were relatively satisfied, and engaged in relatively low levels of indirect hostility, which is perhaps unsurprising among newlyweds.

However, Dr. McNulty also identified some newlywed couples that were less happy, had lower standards and that engaged in higher levels of indirect hostility.

The researcher found that for couples that showed lower levels of indirect hostility or that reported less severe relationship problems, high standards appeared to increase marital satisfaction over time.

Among couples that demonstrated greater indirect hostility or who reported more severe marriage problems, however, high standards led to a reduction in marriage satisfaction over time.

Commenting on what the findings mean for married couples, Dr. McNulty says:

Some people demand too much from their marriages because they are requiring that their marriages fulfill needs that they are not capable of achieving, either because they have limited time, energy, effort, or skills to apply to their marriages.

But other people demand too little from their marriages. Their marriage is a potential source of personal fulfillment that they are not exploiting. Ultimately, spouses appear to be best off to the extent that they ask of their marriages as much as, but not more than, their marriages are able to give them.”

Overall, Dr. McNulty says that while high standards may encourage couples to work on their relationships, his study shows that there are a number of barriers that may prevent couples from reaching those standards, even when they want to.

“Each marriage is different; people differ in their compatibility, their skills, and the external stressors they face,” says Dr. McNulty. “All of these play an important role in determining how successful a marriage will be and thus how much people should demand from it.”

“Couples need to realize their strengths and weaknesses and calibrate their standards accordingly,” he adds.

Last November, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that emotional support through marital problems frustrates husbands.