If you’re trying to make a relationship last, you’re probably trying to guard against the big fuck-ups when you think about keeping things together—the secret flirtations, the secret major purchases, hell, the secret other families. But what if it turns out the big things don’t matter anywhere near as much as the little stuff, which taken together can amount to death by a thousand incompatibilities?
A new 10-year survey out of Australia asked its respondents about income, labor division, relationship satisfaction and issues that lead to divorce. The results are a bit funny in that people tend to be happier when they aren’t married (especially women), and that the stuff that seems to keep people together—or tear them apart—are the little things. The world really does go out with a whimper, not a bang, said some unhappily married dude.
Writing at the Sydney Morning Herald about the survey, Lucy Battersby notes:
For example, men do not like it when their wives or girlfriends are more adventurous than them. And non-smokers do not like being with smokers.
As we all know, adventurous women are whores who should not be trusted with a bungee cord. And how could anyone blame a nonsmoker—a person who prefers breathing actual air—for not wanting to shack up with a pallid, cough-prone, wheezing person who clearly cannot deal with being alive? I say get the adventurous women and the smokers together and call this settled.
But in seriousness, these things absolutely matter: They are significant differences in personality and habit that can manifest in big ways over the long haul when you shack up with someone. If you want to settle in with a chill homebody, chasing your lady around the city to hobnob is unlikely to fulfill your idea of happiness. Likewise, as a person who fully gets how great and fun smoking can be, let’s not kid ourselves: It is gross, and anyone who thinks as much should never be forced to pretend otherwise.
More of those results: In spite of the fact that the happiest man and woman here look as if they are excitedly shitting free wifi, the graph reveals that happiness is, unsurprisingly, a fair-weather friend. All the highest satisfaction reported is associated with early times in the relationship, when there are still no kids, and no one is old and unhealthy yet and things, overall, are usually a lot easier.
This makes sense because a lot of us are assholes who get going the second the going gets remotely real. Compare that with these “angry cats”:
These less happy folks are older, have kids, have been together longer, and it turns out that the compromising they were probably doing early on has worn off in favor of life with this other person, who smokes when they don’t, or vice versa, or who loves going out when they love staying in, who has had to endure health issues from lifestyle or the general effects of aging.
All this stuff, Battersby writes, adds up to the small “niggling things” that stress out your relationship and can lead to separation. Among them: poor mental health, age differences, and religious values. While arguably these are not such small things, I think they are in terms of how they manifest in the day to day. Poor mental health is an exasperating framework to deal with for the depressed person and the non-depressed person and can create distance, misunderstanding, a sense of hopelessness that pervades the everyday. Someone who never gets your ‘80s Rob Lowe jokes is a real buzzkill, and atheists probably aren’t going to find your whole give-it-up-to-God attitude so helpful in a real crisis.
But most relationships tend to start in less clear-cut ways—people meet, are attracted to each other, have good chemistry, enjoy each other’s company. Most of us are not quizzing each other on religious views right off the bat, and age differences can seem like nothing at first, but become more significant over time, particularly as people change. Over the long haul, these differences that once seemed minimal or manageable can suddenly make all the difference in relationship happiness in the everyday.
Other factors contributing towards divorce among married couples include: having children; age gaps of more than five years, particularly when the wife is older; financial troubles; one partner smoking; and the wife having a higher level of education. For de facto couples, issues leading to separation include: one person having stronger religious views than the other; large age gaps; and having children.
There is. notably, one big fuckup that can wreck any joint. Battersby notes that “A marriage is six times more likely to break down if a husband beats his wife, according to the survey results.” Can I just say that I would fucking hope that it would end the marriage? As opposed to say, keeping it going on account of how much the partners both love staying in most nights or not smoking cigarettes? I suppose you could view this statistic as good news, in the sense that by not hitting your wife you still have a decent shot at happiness, but that’s bleak even for me.
Even when a woman is not the victim of domestic violence, she is still less likely to be happy than her husband in the marriage. This is not news. Previous research has found that men’s health and emotional wellbeing improves with marriage over being single, whereas women’s flatlines into eternal dissatisfaction which culminates in unhappy death. And the reasons for this are obvious: Women in most hetero marriages are doing all the work—the housework, the scheduling work, the community work, the emotional work, the work work. And those are the “equal” ones.
The survey also found that when couples had different levels of agreeableness, the woman’s satisfaction increases as she becomes more disagreeable, while the man’s satisfaction decreases. Sounds like demanding women enjoy their relationships more. But women become less happy as emotional stability decreases, but it does not seem to bother men.
But all things being equal (even though we know they aren’t), this is why most marriage advice tends to focus on the little things, the small ways people can make sure they remain connected rather than driven apart. If they align, the result is a sense of positive autopilot. All relationships take work—sometime enormous amounts of it. But though the effort may be constant, the default should be a feeling that the relationship can run on its own for extended periods of time with good feeling, trust, and contentment—even if, in retrospect, those periods will be far more frequent in the early years, when you tend to be healthy and childless, and life is generally easier.
Of course, knowing any of this is unlikely to help you in a relationship. Happiness is hard to forecast; dissatisfaction disguises itself when you’re working through it. Both are always understood best in hindsight. But not smoking is probably a good a start as any.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via Cinematograph AB