How Do Standards and Expectations Affect Marital Happiness?

An unhappy couple leans on cart in supermarketHigh expectations may not harm healthy marriages, but they could make unhealthy marriages worse, according to a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Previous research on how expectations affect marriage is mixed. Some studies have linked high standards to disappointment, while others suggest high standards can motivate couples to live up to those standards.

How Your Expectations Could Affect Your Marriage

Researchers spent four years tracking 135 newlywed couples living in eastern Tennessee. At the beginning of the study, each partner independently completed surveys assessing their own standards, level of marital satisfaction, and perceived severity of relationship problems. Researchers also filmed discussions between the couples, then studied communication styles to assess indirect hostility. Both partners continued reporting marital satisfaction levels via a survey every six months for four years.

Among couples who displayed lower levels of direct hostility and who reported less severe relationship problems, high standards had a positive effect and increased satisfaction with the marriage over time. Couples with more serious problems and higher rates of indirect hostility were less satisfied if they reported having higher standards.

The Role of Indirect Hostility

The research showed indirect hostility—behaviors such as passive aggression, procrastination, and stubbornness—was more damaging to marriages than direct hostility. The researchers believe this is because indirect hostility can undermine communication. Direct hostility may make it easier to solve problems by explicitly identifying and addressing them.

Other research supports the notion that indirect hostility can be damaging to relationships. John Gottman, a psychotherapist and relationship researcher, has observed thousands of couples in a laboratory setting. His research points to four distinct behaviors that undermine relationships: stonewalling, contempt, criticism, and defensiveness. As with other forms of indirect hostility, these behaviors can undermine affection and interfere with communication over time.


  1. Gottman’s four horsemen of the apocalypse. (2013, August 5). Retrieved from
  2. High standards produce mixed effects on marriages. (2016, March 16). Retrieved from
  3. Mcnulty, J. K. (2016). Should spouses be demanding less from marriage? A contextual perspective on the implications of interpersonal standards. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(4), 444-457. doi:10.1177/0146167216634050

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  • eddie

    March 23rd, 2016 at 2:26 PM

    Oh please, we have to get past this thought that we are not measuring up to what others are like so inherently there is something wrong with us.
    what you have to understand is that we are all different, all of our relationships are different
    and that is just fine. you don’t need to compare what you have to what anyone else has.

  • Afair

    March 26th, 2016 at 9:45 AM

    You can’t go and blindside your partner with all of this stuff that you never said that you wanted before but now that you are married you add all of this onto the relationship.

    That can be a lot of pressure for anyone, especially if they then are made to feel like they are not measuring up to those standards.

  • stefan

    March 28th, 2016 at 4:53 PM

    Look, I only know the things that make my wife and I happy.I don’t worry all that much about what other people are doing in their relationships because quite frankly it is none of my business. I only want to make my wife happy and she reciprocates. So why should I wonder what the neighbors down the street are doing? If it is working for them and we are all good then why should I even care?

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