Economists have two Qs for you to ask yourself:
1. On a scale of one to five, how do you think your level of happiness would be if you and your partner separated? One, being awful and five being better.
2. How do you think your partner’s level of happiness would be if the two of you separated? Use the same scale.
If you answered the first question with a five, meaning you’d feel much happier if you and your partner split up, chances are you might be headed for splitsville. (Nothing too unexpected there.) But it’s your answer to the second question that can really make you sit up a bit more straight.
Economics researchers Leora Friedberg and Steven Stern at the University of Virginia reviewed roughly 3,600 couples answers to these two questions — first, in the late 1980’s and then again about six years later.
Again, some of the data is pretty common sense: Couples who both said they’d be much less happy if they separated enjoy a lower-than-average divorce rate. On the other hand, of course, couples who said they’d both feel a whole lot better if their marriage ended were more likely than average to split. Again, nothing surprising.
Here’s what is surprising: Couples who understated or overstated their spouse’s happiness are the most likely to divorce. Twice as much, if you’re wondering.
It seems obvious even without the economic statistics: Thinking your unhappy spouse is happy can screw up your marriage. From my consulting room, I hear the refrain of I didn’t see it coming.
So, why exactly is it so bad to overestimate how content your partner is in your relationship?
I’m thinking that’d be plenty to digest, but we’ve one more spoonful: Misjudging your partner’s satisfaction with the relationship signals a disconnect. Maybe you aren’t paying attention to their feelings, needs, and desires. Maybe you’re taking married-forever as a given.
Maybe your partner is afraid to say anything or doesn’t know quite how? Maybe there’s an unspoken pattern going on between the two of you that prevents either of you from being forthcoming and clear about needs and concerns.
If we assume that our partner is happy in the marriage, we tend to act a bit more cavalier.
If we operate on this assumption, we might be slightly less considerate or a little more demanding. Maybe I eat the last of the cookies in the jar without asking if my hubby would like one. (Guilty as charged.) Maybe you make a sarcastic comment under your breath when you want help with the kids. Really, I’m thrilled how much you help with the kids. Maybe you’re just comfortably distracted from what your honey is saying to you. Huh, Love, did you just say something?
In such scenarios, imagine if your partner is, unbeknownst to you, not all that happy with the marriage. Most likely instead of them thinking something empathetic towards you like, My honey is pretty tired, let me help put the kids to bed, your partner is more likely to think, She’s always cutting me down. We can’t get along anymore.
Even as I write this, I’m biting my lower lip. Couples counseling expert aside. Am I totally sure about my own hubby’s state of our union. I think I know, but do I? What makes me so sure?
If, like me, you’re now sincerely wondering if your partner really is as happy as you think, the best way to find out is to ask. Being honest with each other about your concerns and desires is the best way to start identifying all that’s being left unsaid — and discovering solutions together.