Does Relationship Satisfaction Decline after Marriage?

From the Lecture Series: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Relationship satisfaction has a simple definition, but the way to reach it is sometimes complicated. Sometimes, it is easy to figure out if a relationship will flourish to become a satisfying one or not. But at other times, it looks as if getting married was a very bad idea that ruined everything. Is that true? Is marriage responsible for all the problems leading to divorce? Read on to find out.

The image shows a couple upset with each other.
Marriage looks like the culprit in the fall of relationship satisfaction, but it is mainly the fault of lack of effort. (Image: fizkes/Shutterstock)

The success of a relationship depends on its costs, rewards, and people’s expectations. In a study, people who led successful relationships did not differ in the number of reported awards with those who failed. The determinant was the number of costs, and it even made the future of the relationship predictable.

Signs of Trouble

When a relationship begins, its end can sometimes be predicted. People who report more annoyances, frustrations, and emotional costs early in a relationship are more likely to have their relationships fall apart later. These are the signs of trouble.

The problem is that as the relationship grows, so do the perceived costs. Usually, in the beginning, the rewards are more under focus. Eventually, they perceive the costs, such as new limitations and things they have to give up. The new perceptions decrease relationship satisfaction.

Sad couple having a conflict and relationship problems.
If some troubles lead to a couple’s divorce, there is a high possibility that they were already there when the relationship began. (Image: NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock)

In a successful relationship, rewards keep up with the costs, and the balance increases satisfaction. In an unsuccessful one, costs keep becoming apparent, and rewards keep fading away. Why do some people get a divorce after 20 years?

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Relationship Problems

Studies show that problems that lead to a breakup or divorce even after 20 years were there from the beginning. In other words, fundamental problems usually do not just appear out of nowhere, but become less and less tolerable until they ruin the relationship.

To some people, marriage seems to worsen things. Generally, satisfaction with marriage declines over time, starting, on average, in the second year of marriage.

Marriage and Satisfaction

Marriage gives people happiness for around two years. After that, the feeling of happiness goes back to normal, and satisfaction with the relationship begins to decrease.

The first reason is that people no longer put as much effort into being considerate, responsive, and rewarding partners as they used to be. At the early stages, people willingly put in all the effort required for being thoughtful, helpful, and agreeable. Afterward, they slowly go back to their normal behavior.

As a result of this lack of effort, their partner’s rewards go down, their costs go up, and satisfaction decreases. All they need to do to keep the relationship satisfying is being rewarding. However, they do not need to put in all the old efforts.

Learn more about where people’s personalities come from.

Responsiveness

Being responsive is a very efficient way of being rewarding. Studies show that one of the best predictors of relationship satisfaction and success is if the individuals perceive that their partner is sufficiently responsive to their needs and desires.

Responsiveness is a vast area but involves things as simple as supporting a partner’s goals in words and actions. Paying attention to the partner and their interests, listening carefully to their concerns, and celebrating their accomplishments are other realizations of responsiveness.

As a result, the outcome of the relationship can go above the minimum level expected by the partner and happiness results. However, the difficulty is that responsiveness, like personal criteria and expectations, is offered and perceived differently in different people.

Learn more about why we make mountains out of molehills.

Perceptions of Responsiveness

One study showed that people noticed their partner’s efforts for being responsive in an average of two-thirds of the time. One-third was gone merely unnoticed. At the same time, half of the times that they were not trying to be supportive, they were perceived as supportive.

A happy, laughing couple in a cafe.
If responsiveness is perceived correctly, it can bond the relationship strongly together and increase relationship satisfaction through time. (Image: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock)

When responsiveness is lower than the expected level, the other person will also become less responsive for two reasons: why should they help someone that does not help them? Why should they hurt themselves by investing more than their partner does in the relationship?

Obviously, the misconception causes a loop of behaviors where both partners ignore each other’s needs because the other one is ignoring them. People in happy relationships often say that successful relationships take work, but it is very difficult to find where to start.

It is not marriage that ruins relationships; rather, it is the people’s lack of responsiveness and efforts that they do not want to invest in anymore.

Common Questions about Relationship Satisfaction

Q: Can relationship success be predicted?

The success or failure of a relationship correlates to how many costs people report at the beginning of their relationship. People who reported more annoyances, frustrations and emotional costs early in relationships were more likely to have their relationships fall apart later due to lack of relationship satisfaction.

Q: Can focusing on rewarding aspects increase relationship satisfaction?

In the beginning, yes. However, relationship satisfaction will eventually decrease as the costs will be perceived as they really are.

Q: What is the importance of responsiveness in a relationship?

Responsiveness is important because it is very rewarding. A responsive, supportive partner increases the partner’s positive outcomes, hopefully above his or her comparison level and comparison level for alternatives. Thus, relationship satisfaction will significantly increase.

Keep Reading
Catharsis, Overreacting, and Psychological Health
Physical and Psychological Pain: The Case of Hurt Feelings
Relational Value in Relationships