Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Four tips for better marriages

Edited by Jill Wright,

The wedding business is going to be delighted with at least one of the recommendations from research undertaken by the US National Marriage Project into the factors that make for healthy marriages.

According to the report, titled "Before 'I Do'",  couples who want to maximise their chances for long-term wedded bliss should splash out on a BIG wedding, with at least 150 guests.

The other findings might, however, trouble the majority of couples who follow the modern relationship sequence, in which most of the milestones occur before marriage, rather than after.

According to the research authors, Denver University psychologists Dr Galena Rhoades and Dr Scott Stanley, marriage partners report happier relationships if they:

  • Have fewer pre-marital partners
  • Commit to marriage before living together
  • Don't have a child before tying the knot

The research data was compiled from the US Relationship Development Study, which surveyed more than one thousand American couples aged between 18 and 34 who were unmarried but in a relationship. Over the next five years, 418 of those couples subsequently married.

Rhoades and Stanley found a significant link between the number of guests at a wedding and long-term relationship success. Even after controlling for education and income, small wedding parties tend to be associated with less long-term happiness.

This correlates with work by psychologist Charles Kiesler (Kiesler, 1971) that showed that commitment is strengthened when it is publicly declared, because people typically strive to maintain consistency between what they say and what they do.

The latest study indicates that men and women who only slept with their (future) spouse prior to marriage reported higher marital quality than those who had other 
sexual partners as well. 

For women, having had fewer sexual partners before marriage was also related to higher marital quality. 

Rhoades and Stanley sensibly point out that this doesn’t mean that sex before marriage will doom a marriage - and for that matter I know a lot of happy couples who have had modest weddings and had a child, if not two or three before marriage - but the research suggests that having pre-marital sex with many different partners may be risky if you’re looking for a high-quality marriage. 

There is data that supports the advice on pre-marital parenthood: in the US, nearly 40 per cent of parents in their 20s who had a baby between 2000 and 2005 while living together split up by the time their child was five ... three times higher than the rate for the same cohort who were married when they had a child.

The research introduces two interesting concepts - "sliding vs. deciding" and "the Vegas fallacy". 

It defines "sliding" as just letting something happen, rather than carefully and deliberately making a joint decision. Deciding is better, and the New York Times has put up a very thoughtful blog post on just why couples should do more of it.

The reasoning is quite simple: When you make an intentional decision, you are more likely to follow through on it, and the union will be strengthened accordingly.

The Vegas fallacy arises from one of America's most successful advertising campaigns, in which the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority introduced the slogan "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" to the national consciousness and convinced millions of families that "sin city" offered more than just gambling. 

About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.