A new survey conducted by researchers in the UK found that although couples without children may be happier with their relationship than married parents, mothers are significantly happier with their lives than either child-free women or men. Additionally, the researchers also discovered that it is the small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness that were prized most highly by all of those in a coupled relationship, no matter their gender, sexual orientation, or status as parents.

“Actions really do speak louder than words and many people consider a loving gesture to be as valuable as hearing ‘I love you’,” said Dr. Jacqui Gabb, senior lecturer in social policy at Open University and co-author of the report. “Grand romantic gestures, although appreciated, don’t nurture a relationship as much as bringing your partner a cup of tea in bed or watching TV together.”

Enduring Couples

Although seven in 10 households in the UK are headed up by married couples, 42 percent of all marriages end in divorce. Instead of dwelling on the negative, though, a research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and managed by researchers at the Open University examined the reasons people stay together for significant periods of time.  The "Enduring Love? Couple Relationships in the 21st Century" study involved two levels of research: an online quantitative survey, which opened on Jan. 16, 2012, and closed on Jan. 14, 2013, of 5,445 adults and in-depth interviews with a sample of 50 couples.

Participants in the survey met the chief criteria of being in a long-term coupled relationship, with most either married (60 percent) or co-habiting (24 percent). Of these participants, the vast majority (91 percent) identified themselves as white, while 86 percent described themselves as heterosexual. That said, gay and lesbian (six percent) and bisexual (five percent) respondents also participated. Less than half of the sample population expressed some form of religious belief (44 percent). A full 80 percent of all participants were women and more than half (60 percent) were parents.  

For the current report, the researchers analyzed data from the UK cohort, which comprised 4,494 adults, in an effort to answer the question: How do couples experience, understand, and sustain the qualities of their long-term relationships? In particular, they focused on gender, generation, and parenthood to understand how quality and stability are experienced and imagined in long-term relationships while also exploring what they termed '"relationship work" women and men performed to stay together. After gathering data and analyzing the information, they discovered any number of surprising insights into the current state of coupled relationships in the UK.

Survey Says

Better educated participants do not have better quality relationships or greater happiness with their lives than those who are less-educated.

Unmarried parents are slightly happier than married parents.

Compared to middle-aged men, both younger and older men tend to score higher on relationship quality and general happiness with their relationship.

Non-heterosexual participants are more positive about as well as happier with the quality of their relationship than heterosexuals, though their life happiness was generally about the same. 

When comparing participants who identified as religious to those who did not, no significant differences existed between their scores for relationship quality, relationship with their partner, and happiness with their relationship. However, religious-minded participants were found to be happier overall with their lives when compared to others.

Compared to female participants without children, mothers were more negative about their relationship quality and their relationship, yet they scored significantly higher than every other category (child-free men, fathers, and child-free women) in the area of happiness with life. Mothers were also almost twice as likely as fathers to say their child (or children) are the most important person in their life. The researchers believe such findings indicate that children may be the primary source of happiness for women.

Heterosexual parents are the least likely of all couples to take much needed couple time, to say "I love you," and to pursue shared interests.