Happiness predicts unhappiness in wedlock

Updated: Jul 20, 2018


There’s something repulsive about loved-up couples pawing at each other, tongues a-thrusting, eyes a-goggle. Their happiness is too much - too sickly - like raspberry sauce on chocolate ice-cream.


An unpleasant part of me hopes it’s all a sham. If these perfect pairs have long and successful relationships, the world is out of balance.


Happily for curmudgeons like me, American academics tracked a hundred-and-sixty-eight couples from their wedding day.


In the early days of the relationships, the psychologists measured how affectionate the partners were to each other. How often did they compliment each other; how frequently did they whisper ‘I love you’ into an ear they were nuzzling?


Thirteen years later, they caught up with the couples - and the ex-couples. Some had happy unions come their lace anniversary, whilst others made it through a few years before lawyering up and fighting over who got to keep the fridge.


The scientists compared the earlier behaviours of those who’d called it quits with that of those who’d made a go of it. It was the divorcees who’d started out with the stomach-churning canoodling: thirteen years earlier they’d shown (on the psychologists’ scale) forty per cent more affection.


The authors think that the inevitable decline in passion over time was the cause of the splits: raspberry sauce and chocolate make you sick after a while. The couples didn’t realise that this decline was always going to come, thought they’d failed, and become disillusioned.


In truth, we don’t really know what causes the pattern. Perhaps the loved-up couples are desperately plastering over fault-lines that they can already see. Maybe if you’re too focussed on talking about your desire you fail to notice that your partner has unbearable habits. It’s possible that the sort of people who need a lot of reassurance, a lot of hugs and ‘I love you’s are insecure and this comes out over time.


But whatever the cause, if you see a couple who seem a little too in love, you can take some dark comfort from knowing that sooner or later they’ll be at each others’ throats.


Tolstoy wrote, ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. We now know that all those miserable families started out alike: happily.


Chris Paley holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and is the author of Unthink, which has sold over 30,000 copies in English and been translated into five other languages. One magazine said it will make you ‘happier than a rabbit on a carrot farm’. If you want to be that happy, buy it here.


Huston et al. (2001)