- Although research suggests that several factors may contribute to a harmonious relationship, what predicts marital satisfaction is not fully understood.
- Research also shows that long-term couples often start thinking and behaving similarly, leaving many unanswered questions unanswered about how this could play a role in marital satisfaction.
- A recent study by Stanford University in collaboration with researchers in China has found evidence that joint brain activity can predict marital happiness.
- Their results also provide insights into the neurobiological basis of the human marital bond.
Marital satisfaction and romantic compatibility have been the subject of research for decades. Yet, scientists are only beginning to understand why some couples report happiness in a relationship and others don’t experience this type of relationship satisfaction.
To date, research has identified several factors that may contribute to a person’s happiness in their relationship. For example, a systematic review of research from 2016 found that religion, gender, and communication affected marital satisfaction. Interpersonal factors and mental health also played a role, in addition to job, length of marriage, age and number of children a couple had.
In addition, harmonious couples often begin to think and behave in a similar way over time. For example, a study from 2021 found evidence of personality synchronization in older adult couples over time.
Still, scientists still need to fully understand whether this synchronicity between romantic partners is indicative of greater relationship satisfaction.
But a new study by researchers from Stanford University in collaboration with scientists in China has gained more insights into marriage satisfaction.
In particular, they found that heterosexual spouses who reported higher marital satisfaction also had synchronized brain activity when they viewed marriage-related images
Furthermore, unlike other research, the scientists found no significant relationship between marital satisfaction and age, gender, personality characteristics, or length of marriage.
The research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Do happily married people think the same way?
The study authors hypothesized that measuring marital satisfaction could be possible by examining the brain’s response to marital and socially relevant cues.
They also suggested that these synchronicities could contribute to greater marital satisfaction as more evidence suggests that neural activity among partners is becoming increasingly synchronized over time and shared life experiences.
To further investigate this theory, scientists recruited 35 heterosexual couples in China who had been married for at least a year. The researchers also included randomly selected couples between men and women who were not married.
Investigating the neurobiology of marital satisfaction
First, the research team determined whether behavioral or personality factors predicted marital happiness by giving study participants several questionnaires on marital satisfaction and adult attachment. The participants have also completed the Big Five Personality Inventory.
Then, participants underwent fMRI brain scans while viewing relationship and object-related movie clips. The scientists hoped to find out whether married couples showed a stronger synchronization of brain activity than randomly selected couples between men and women.
The scientists analyzed the data by calculating intersubjective synchronization (ISS) between married couples. The team also used dimensional and categorical analyses to determine whether the ISS was associated with marital satisfaction between married couples.
In addition, the researchers investigated what role the Default Mode Network (DMN) — a brain network connected to thoughts, emotions, or beliefs about themselves and others — played in the happiness of marriage.
In particular, the team examined whether ISS in the DMN was related to specific factors of marital satisfaction, including personality, communication and conflict resolution.
The analysis found that married couples who reported higher marital satisfaction were more likely to show activity in similar parts of the brain when watching the relationship-related movie clips. However, this synchronized neural activity did not occur when they viewed object-related images, regardless of reported marital satisfaction.
Furthermore, happily married couples showed more synchronized brain activity than randomly paired couples.
In a Stanford Medicine article, study author Dr. Vinod Menon, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said: “We found that the links between marital bliss and behavioral measures such as personality tests were pretty weak.”
In the article, Dr. Vinod explained that “married couples had more similar brain activity overall compared to random couples, regardless of the level of satisfaction. In addition, you get an extra sync with those who report themselves to be happier in their marriage.”
The origins of synchronized heads
Individuals come together and form pairs based on many complex factors. But when and how a couple develops synchronized thinking is not completely clear.
“We don’t know whether there are selection-based behaviors that result from similar brain activity in a relationship, or whether couples develop over time to develop similar predictive and predictive brain representations,” Dr. Menon explained in an interview with Stanford Medicine.
Dr. Jared Heathman, board-certified psychiatrist at Your Family Psychiatrist in Houston, Texas, told Medical News Today:
“Married couples often think the same thing called synchronized thinking. This type of thinking can bring couples together. People often choose partners who are similar to them. Synchronized thinking can [also] be a learned reaction that occurs after a couple has been together for an extended period of time.”
Dr. Heathman interpreted the study results and added: “My thoughts are that both partners in a relationship move towards a similar way of thinking about needs, wants, and hopes. Both partners influence each other.”
“Although both partners are in sync when it comes to marriage, they may have different views and perspectives on different issues, thus explaining why they didn’t have similar brain activity when looking at non-relationship related images,” he added.
Dr. Monica Vermani, clinical psychologist and author of A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety and Traumas, told MNT:
“Couples with similar thinking styles and personalities often come together easily, live well together and live easily in harmony. On the other hand, some people come together because they […] lack certain qualities about themselves and look for partners who have the qualities they lack in order to achieve a sense of balance.”
“In successful partnerships that involve this dynamic, both people respect, admire and learn from each other. Over time, they are often challenged and inspired to learn from and acquire the qualities they admire in their partner.”
— Dr. Monica Vermani
Referring to the results of the study, Dr. Vermani suggests that “similarities in the brain confirm common perceptions, thought patterns, ways of processing emotions, anger, interpersonal and social interactions, and even analytical versus emotional thinking.”
“Such similarities in neurological/brain activities can be strong predictors of marital satisfaction,” she concludes.