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The Secret of Happy Marriage? It's Not Communication

Ask couples for the secret of a happy marriage and the word 'communication' always comes high on their list.

But a new study in the Journal of Marriage and Family suggests that the link between communication and happiness is not what we think.

Researcher Justin Lavner from the University of Georgia, and colleagues, filmed 431 couples four times during their first three years of married life. On each occasion, they were asked to discuss a topic of disagreement followed by something they would each like to change about themselves. The short videos were then analysed and scored by specially trained coders.

Although couples who said they were happy at any particular moment also tended to communicate well at that same time, the evidence that better communication today made couples happier tomorrow was tenuous at best and non-existent at worst.

In other words, communication and happiness are essentially two ways of saying the same thing. Couples communicate well when they're happy and badly when they're not. That's about it.

There are all sorts of reasons why this makes a great deal of sense.

Over the years, I have run hundreds of marriage and relationship courses for couples based on the best available research on what makes a difference. Communication was never the core component of our courses because I was never terribly convinced that learning how to communicate was the big secret.

It wasn't in our own marriage. I don't know about you. But I'm pretty rubbish at communicating well when I'm in a bad mood. It's other things - such as attitude, decision, or humour - that get me through these difficult times.

Other research supports my personal experience. Even when couples have just been taught how to use the well-known Speaker/Listener active listening technique, and confirmed they know how to use it well, half of them immediately revert to their old way of arguing when confronted with an emotionally-charged issue. That'll be us.

Yet even if learning communication skills definitely does help some couples, those who do use Speaker/Listener only become less negative toward one another and not also more positive.

This is good. But if improving our communication skill doesn't even make us happier today, this new study now shows that it also has little to no effect on improving our marriage tomorrow.

Communication is easy when we're happy. But if that's not the secret, what is?

Well, that's a topic for another day ... but my quick answer is that it's the big picture stuff of how we see our relationship and treat each other that really matters. In one word, it's 'attitude'.

Harry Benson is Research Director for Marriage Foundation, a charity set up by a former high court judge to restore confidence in marriage. Read his blog here.