8 Secrets to Long-Term Monogamy: The Science of Happy Marriages.


By Angelica Shiels Psy.D. (Article also posted to Lifehack.)

I have been reading a lot about the concept of “monogamy” lately. Not just because I am doing research on sexual monogamy for my new professional venture.  Actually, the topic is kind of a bizarre hobby of mine.  As early as I could pen the words, “I love JTT Forever and Ever” in my Rainbow Bright Diary,  I’ve been intrigued by the idea of unending love.  As a  child I wondered how Winnie and Kevin seemed to love each other since second grade, but look what happened to Hillary and Madonna and Cher… And don’t get me started on the tragic complexities that were Courtney & Kurt or Nicole & OJ….And what exactly did “Shoop” mean, and how exactly did Salt and Pepa know this particular gentleman was “A Mighty Good Man?”

Yes, I was that socially-awkward girl, who at 23,  asked a random guy at a bar, “Do you know any really happy couples?  Like old couples?  What do you think they do differently?”  Instead of taking his 312 and turning on his heals, that poor guy actually thought for a second and then gave me a pretty solid answer.  So of course, I instantly decided I wanted to marry him, and then I did marry him a couple years later.

And so now I wonder professionally and personally, what exactly do we need to know about monogamy to ensure we are on the right side of the frightening relationship-failure statistics?

What should we be plastering on the billboards of 20-somethings these days (aka Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter?)?  What should we be teaching our children if we don’t want them to experience the pain and agony of relationship demise?


1.   It is normal and statistically expected to experience a decline in marital satisfaction during the first years of marriage.  There are many reasons why a decline in marital satisfaction in the first few years is normal.  Google  “normal rebound,”  “emotional erosion,” and “motivational erosion.”   (I wanted to write something completely bratty about how — insert hoity British accent– “didn’t experience a decline in marital satisfaction in the first few years of my marriage,” but I think my head had just been spinning too much to notice the dissatisfaction.  I sometimes think having three kids, several moves, and career changes in the first three and a half years of marriage just made it so that we had niether energy to ponder satisfaction nor energy to ponder dissatisfaction…. So errrr, there’s that.)

2.  Researchers questioned couples to attempt to pinpoint the common aspects of people in marriages that last 15 years or more.  Here are the characteristics of long-term couples as discovered in two different studies:

  • Ability to change and adapt to change (Klagsbrun)
  • Ability to surrender to things that will not change (i.e. accepting aspects of your partner as-is.) (Klagsbrun)
  • Assumption of permanence (i.e., the marriage will last a lifetime) (Klagsbrun and Mackey & Obrien)
  • Trust (Klagsbrun)
  • Balance of  power/Mutuality of decision-making (Klagsbrun and Mackey & Obrien)
  • Enjoyment of each other’s company (Mackey & Obrien)
  • Cherished, shared history   (Mackey & Obrien)
  • Relational values of trust, respect, understanding, and equality   (Mackey & Obrien)
  • Sexual and psychological intimacy   (Mackey & Obrien)

3.  In his “Love Lab”, researcher John Gottman and his team observed over 3,000 couples to pinpoint behaviors that predicted divorce and break-up with 95% accuracy.  Four Unexpected Predictors of Divorce

4.  In his “Love Lab,” researcher John Gottman and his team observed over 3,000 couples during conflict, and found that these behaviors existed in the happiest long-term couples:

– Five positive exchanges/communications for every one negative exchange/communication

– Wife approached husband during conflict, and does-so “softly.”

– Husband allowed wife to influence him.

-Wife used humor to soothe husband.

-Husband was able to use positive feelings to soothe himself.

-There is a general culture of gentleness, soothing, and meeting negativity by neutral affect.


5.  “Love” is at first a biological, chemical, hormonal experience of attachment and infatuation for another person (complete roses, sunshine, and fireworks.)  This lasts anywhere from a few months to about 2-3 years.   Put bluntly, this biological infatuation stage exists in to ensure that two people can stand being around each other long enough to reproduce.  “Love,” after the infatuation stage is a mindset of commitment and respect for the other person that is not always butterflies and rainbows AND the ability to behave consistently with this mindset.  A feeling of “love” is not sufficient to sustain a happy relationship long-term.  There must also be behaviors consistent with commitment and respect.

6.  To go along with number 5, two separate studies found that the assumption that marriage will last a lifetime (i.e. automatic commitment to push-through the icky parts together) are in the top three aspects of relationships that last 15 years or more.  In a third study, “Marriage as a long-term commitment” and ‘Wanting the relationship to succeed” were in the top six reasons men and women gave for their successful 15+ year marriages.

7.  Some people are biologically/genetically less wired for monogamy.  Two aspects of temperment that research has found to be typically less-suited for monogamy include thrill-seeking and impulsivity.

8.  Forget about love.  Happy couples like each other.  One study asked 351 couples married 15 years or longer to list the main reasons for their marital success.  Husbands and wives both put “Liking spouse as a person” or “Spouse as best friend” as one of their top-two answers.















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