Satisfaction in close relationships is defined as the subjective attitude (satisfaction) and affective experience (happiness) in the evaluation of one’s relationship. Most of the existing research on this topic focuses on the correlates and predictors of satisfaction in married couples. The subjective perception of satisfaction is an important indicator of relationship quality and has consequences for the longevity of the relationship, as less satisfied relationships are more likely to end. Multidimensional analyses indicate that the structure of satisfaction is different for men and women. Men’s marital satisfaction usually can be determined by one factor that taps into overall happiness in the marriage (e.g., lack of regret over marrying, the amount of disagreement with their spouses on affection and sex). Women’s marital satisfaction, in contrast, appears to be two-dimensional. The first factor is overall happiness in the marriage, as with men, and the second dimension concerns the ways in which the couple relates to other people, including proper behavior with family members and friends.
In terms of stability, research by Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip A. Cowan on the patterns of change in marital satisfaction (2000) shows that satisfaction is highest during the premarital and early years of marriage, then declines later. This decline holds true for both men and women, but appears to level off after several years. Despite this drop, couples that stay together often still report that they are happily married.
Research on predictors of relationship satisfaction has centered on intrapersonal, interpersonal/interactional, and environmental determinants of marital satisfaction. Researchers examining the intrapersonal determinants of relationship satisfaction investigate the ways personality characteristics of the members influence happiness in the context of the marriage. Analyses of differences and similarities between members of a couple reveal that “homogamy,” or partner similarity on different dimensions such as personality, emotionality, and values, predicts greater relationship stability and satisfaction. There is also evidence that specific personality characteristics of one or both of the members of the couple predict relationship satisfaction. Individuals who score high on the scale for emotional instability and those with negative views about themselves tend to have less satisfied partners. Similarly, Lilah Raynor Koski and Phillip R. Shaver in Satisfaction in Close Relationships (1997) note that in general, people with an insecure attachment style (i.e., those who doubt their own worthiness for love, as well as the dependability and availability of their partners) tend to have less satisfied spouses. It has also been shown, however, that attachment styles in men and women relate to relationship satisfaction somewhat differently. Women with an anxious attachment style (i.e., being preoccupied with relationships, and wanting extreme closeness and being afraid of being in love) experience lower levels of self- and partner satisfaction. Among men, in contrast, it is an avoidant attachment style (i.e., being uncomfortable with closeness, and dependency on other people) that predicts lower levels of self- and partner satisfaction. These personality differences relate to differences in communication and emotions. Securely attached men and women, who believe in their self-worth and have a trust in the availability of significant others for love and safety, appear to be more comfortable with self-disclosure, trust, and commitment, and report higher levels of positive emotions that are characteristic of satisfied relationships.
Researchers who focus on interpersonal and interactional correlates of marital satisfaction have observed that certain emotional and communication patterns are more prevalent among dissatisfied couples. One main finding is that it is the communication style between the partners, and not the number of conflicts per se, that predicts enduring relationship satisfaction. For example, Mari Clements, Allan Cordova, Howard Markman, and Jean-Philippe Laurenceau identified a pattern of “escalation-withdrawal-invalidation” in communication as detrimental to relationship satisfaction (1997). In this pattern, the couple allows negative interactions to spiral out of control and reach increasing levels of negativity. John Gottman in What Predicts Divorce? (1994) refers to a similar processes of “negative reciprocity” that prevents the couple from snapping out of the negative mood state the conflict has put them in. Such escalation and negative reciprocity is then followed by one or both members of the couple becoming less communicative (withdrawal). In the next phase, the couple usually engages in invalidation, whereby partners angrily assail each other’s character. Gottman’s research shows that a communication style characterized by a “demand-withdrawal” pattern is similarly maladaptive. The repetition of this pattern, in which one partner’s criticism, demands, or complaints produces defensiveness and passive inaction (stonewalling) in the other partner, erodes relationship satisfaction and ultimately leads to the dissolution of the relationship.
There is very little research on relationship satisfaction outside of heterosexual married couples. Based on the limited evidence available on same-sex partners, Gottman and his colleagues reported that there are many commonalities in the correlates of relationship satisfaction in homosexual and heterosexual relationships (Gottman, Levenson, Gross, et al. 2003). Consistent with findings on heterosexual couples, behavioral expressions of contempt, disgust, and defensiveness are related to lower levels of relationship satisfaction, whereas positive expressions, such as humor and affection, are related to higher levels of relationship satisfaction in gay and lesbian couples.
In addition to the intrapersonal and interpersonal factors reviewed, environmental factors also affect relationship satisfaction. Life events such as the loss of a job or illness, as well as chronic stressors such as unemployment, can contribute to decreased levels of satisfaction. The effects of environmental factors can best be explained through their interaction with intrapersonal and interpersonal vulnerabilities, however. For example, although Cowan and Cowan reported significant drops in satisfaction around the time couples have their first child, couples who communicate better appear to be less vulnerable to erosion of marital satisfaction around this stressful time (2000).
Interventions aimed at increasing relationship satisfaction target maladaptive communication styles and/or negative emotions. For instance, therapeutic approaches try to change negative expectations about the partner and the relationship in order to enhance constructive discussion. Likewise, emotion-focused interventions attempt to enhance the understanding and down-regulation of negative emotions such as anger that hinder more constructive styles of coping with problems in the relationship.
Clements, Mari L., Allan D. Cordova, Howard J. Markman, and Jean-Philippe Laurenceau. 1997. The Erosion of Marital Satisfaction Over Time and How To Prevent It. In Satisfaction in Close Relationships, eds. Robert J. Sternberg and Mahzad Hojjat, 335-355. New York: Guilford Press.
Cowan, Carolyn Pape, and Philip A. Cowan. 2000. When Partners Become Parents: The Big Life Change for Couples. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Gottman, John Mordechai. 1994. What Predicts Divorce? The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Gottman, John Mordechai, Robert W. Levenson, James Gross, et al. 2003. Correlates of Gay and Lesbian Couples’ Relationship Satisfaction and Relationship Dissolution. Journal of Homosexuality 45 (1): 23-43.
Koski, Lilah Raynor, and Phillip R. Shaver. 1997. Attachment and Relationship Satisfaction Across the Lifespan. In Satisfaction in Close Relationships, eds. Robert J. Sternberg and Mahzad Hojjat, 26-55. New York: Guilford Press.