Ever wonder what your life would be like if you weren’t married? Or imagined how things might’ve turned out if you’d tied the knot with someone else?
Don’t worry: It’s perfectly normal to daydream about alternative life scenarios.
What matters is how you answer the two questions you should ask yourself next:
1. On a scale of 1-5, with 1 being much worse and 5 being much better, how do you think your level of happiness would be different if you and your partner separated?
2. How do you think your partner’s level of happiness would be different if you and your partner separated? (Use the same scale.)
If you answered the first question with “5,” meaning you’d feel much happier if you and your partner split up, chances are you might be headed for divorce. (Nothing too unexpected there.) But it’s your answer to the second question — and whether that answer is correct — that can be the more surprising red flag for a split.
How economists used two questions to predict divorce
University of Virginia economics researchers Leora Friedberg and Steven Stern looked at how 3,597 couples answered those two questions (which had been asked as part of a national survey) at two different points in time — once during the survey’s first wave in 1987-1988 and again about six years later.
Over the six year period, about 7% of all the couples in the study divorced. Couples where both spouses said they would be “worse” or “much worse” off if they separated had — unsurprisingly — a lower-than-average divorce rate (4.8%). Couples who said they’d feel happier if their marriage ended, meanwhile, were more likely than average to split.
But here’s where it gets interesting. Couples who had “incorrect perceptions” of each other’s happiness — meaning they thought their partners were either happier or less happy than they suspected — had a higher rate of divorce overall (8.6%). And, those with “seriously incorrect perceptions” — meaning they were at least 2 points off when guessing how happy their partner would be after separating — had a much higher divorce rate (around 12%).
Here’s the breakdown — keep in mind that “happiness” and “unhappiness” in this chart is not in general but in answer to the questions (rate happiness/unhappiness if you and your partner were to separate):
What’s the big takeaway? When there’s some kind of disconnect — when a person isn’t in touch with how their spouse actually feels about the marriage — it could be a forerunner of trouble down the road.
And the partners who are most at risk are those who don’t realise that their spouses harbour secret fantasies of how great their post-separation life might be.
In fact, people who assumed their partners were happy in the relationship when they were not at all were more than twice as likely (13-14%) to be divorced six years later than those who correctly judged their partner’s feelings.
Thinking your unhappy spouse is happy can screw up your marriage
Why exactly is it so bad to overestimate how content your partner is in your relationship? Steven Stern, one of the study authors, suggests one possible explanation:
Imagine for a minute that your husband or wife is satisfied with the way things are going in your marriage, Stern says. As far as your relationship is concerned, he or she is completely happy.
Would knowing this — or assuming it (as tends to be the case) — affect how you behave in the relationship? Stern says yes. When you operate on the assumption that your significant other is happy with your relationship, you tend to act a bit more recklessly with that person. You might be a little more demanding, says Stern, or slightly less considerate.
You might be more likely, for example, to cancel dinner plans so you can stay a bit later at the office, or forget to be gentle when you suggest that your partner could contribute more to the family finances.
Now, suggests Stern, imagine you were way off about your partner’s feelings. As it turns out, he or she isn’t actually all that happy with your marriage — as a matter of fact, he or she has been eyeing someone else at work and seriously considering splitting up with you for months.
These feelings would likely transform how your partner interprets your last-minute decision to cancel dinner, for example. Instead of thinking to him or herself, He must have a lot of work to get done, for example, an unhappy partner might think something like, He’s always cancelling our plans. He obviously doesn’t care about this relationship.
If partners aren’t open with each other about their emotions, needs, and concerns, these types of severe misunderstandings are impossible to avoid.
“The more private information there is [and] the more information two people keep hidden from each other, the worse decisions they make and the more they have an incentive to take advantage,” Stern suggests.
The fact that these questions might reveal how much information you and your partner keep from one another isn’t the only reason they could be predictive. Misjudging your partner’s satisfaction with the relationship could also suggest that you aren’t paying attention to his or her feelings, needs, and desires — something that’s critical for any successful relationship.
What the finding adds to existing relationship research
Decades of relationship research has linked specific negative behaviours — from contempt and defensiveness to a failure to resolve conflicts quickly and openly — with divorce. And psychologists have long observed that people in happy relationships are less tempted by other potential partners — although whether it’s that being satisfied makes people more committed or that people who are already more committed are therefore more satisfied is unclear.
But this is one of the first studies to suggest that misjudging your partner’s satisfaction with a relationship could make you more likely to split up several years down the road.
Don’t freak out just yet, though: If you’re worried your partner isn’t as happy as you’d assumed he or she was, the best way to find out is to ask. Being honest with each other about your feelings, concerns, and desires is the best way to start identifying any problems — and finding solutions together.
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