The University Record, March 29, 1993

Newlyweds’ relationships may not be as blissful as they think

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Even if they are not in a state of conflict-free bliss, newlyweds keep their rose-colored glasses firmly affixed, according to a U-M study.

About 40 percent of the 373 couples in the study either said they could not think of a single argument they’d had in the last month, or said that they had never disagreed or argued since being married.

Though not completely free of conflict, the remaining couples saw themselves as more similar than they really were and were significantly more likely to say they fought clean.

These findings, published in the current issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, may accurately reflect the harmonious relations between newlyweds, according to Linda K. Acitelli, research psychologist at the Institute for Social Research. Or they may suggest the extent to which newlyweds tend to look at their relationships through rose-colored glasses.

With U-M psychologists Elizabeth M. Douvan and Joseph Veroff, Acitelli studied the relationship between conflict styles and marital happiness in the couples, all married less than a year. It was the first marriage for all the couples, who were an average of 25–30 years of age.

After eliminating the conflict-free couples from the study, the researchers analyzed the links between conflict styles, marital happiness and perceived similarity between spouses in the 219 remaining couples.

“They were much more likely to say they handled their disagreements in a constructive way,” says Acitelli, “by calmly discussing their conflicts, for example. They were also significantly more likely to say that they listened to each other’s point of view, tried to compromise, said nice things and tried to understand how their spouse was feeling.”

They were less likely to admit engaging in such destructive conflict behaviors as yelling, shouting, threatening, name-calling, bringing up things that happened long ago, or insulting their in-laws.

In addition to describing their personal behavior during conflicts, Acitelli also asked each husband and wife how their spouse behaved. And when she compared how people saw themselves, how they saw their spouses and how their spouses saw themselves, she found that most husbands and wives thought they were more similar to their spouses than they really were.

“This ‘false consensus’ effect operates in all kinds of groups,” says Acitelli. “People tend to overestimate their similarities to others in general, especially people they like or admire.”

Still, she points out, the widespread cultural belief that marriage is a melding of two lives into one, and that two people who love each other share many things in common, even common ways of behaving during arguments, may strengthen this tendency to see a spouse as highly similar to oneself during the early months of a marriage.

Indeed, Acitelli found that the more similar newlyweds saw themselves as being, the happier they said they were with their marriage—with one understandable exception. Couples who said they frequently engaged in destructive fight tactics tended to be among the most unhappy.

“The causal link is unclear, though,” adds Acitelli. “The findings don’t explain whether people fought with each other in a destructive way because they were unhappy, or whether they were unhappy because they did all these destructive things during arguments.

“What is clear is that there’s a tendency for this to turn into a vicious cycle, if husbands and wives start reciprocating destructive behavior. If your spouse starts yelling or insulting your family during an argument, the best response is to step back and comment on the relationship, not to retort in kind,” advises Acitelli.

Douvan is the Catharine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies. Veroff is professor of psychology.