Marriages can be difficult — 40 to 50 percent of them in the United States end in divorce, after all. Finding the right mix of affection, commitment, and responsibility means balancing many factors. Some things couples can’t control, but that’s not the case with their expectations of one another. New research suggests that partners’ standards influence their satisfaction in marriage, and not always in a good way.

According to a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, high standards improve satisfaction only when a marriage is strong to begin with. For weaker unions, including those involving passive aggression or severe differences, high standards only make things worse.

“Some people demand too much from their marriages because they are requiring that their marriages fulfill needs that they are not capable of achieving, whether because they have limited time, energy, effort, or skills to apply to their marriage,” said Dr. James McNulty, professor of psychology at Florida State University and author of the study, in a statement. “Other people demand too little from their marriages. Their marriage is a potential source of personal fulfillment that they are not exploiting. Ultimately, spouses appear to be best off to the extent that they ask of their marriages as much as, but not more than, their marriages are able to give them.”

The research involved 135 newlywed couples. At the start of the study, each partner filled out a private survey that measured their own standards, severity of relationship problems, and their marital satisfaction. The couples also participated in a videotaped marital discussion, which researchers then analyzed for various aspects of verbal communication. This video gave the researchers a chance to assess the couples’ indirect hostility to each other. The participants continued to complete surveys on their marital satisfaction every six months for four years.

McNulty said that indirect hostility is much more detrimental to problem-solving in relationships than direct hostility.

“Prior work by our lab and others indicates that direct hostility, such as blaming the partner for a problem and demanding that the partner change, can have important benefits to some couples, specifically those who need to change,” he explained.

In their first assessment, the newlyweds generally reported being satisfied in their marriages and having high standards. There were, however, some who began their marriages with lower satisfaction and standards. The way the spouses’ standards were associated with changes in satisfaction over the years depended heavily on their tendency to engage in indirect hostility. Those that solved problems well together, indicated by low levels of indirect hostility, were able to meet higher standards and, in turn, showed higher satisfaction.

The opposite was true for couples exhibiting high levels of indirect hostility: Those that held high standards had lower satisfaction because the marriages were unable to meet those standards. The couples whose relationships could live up to their low standards reported being more satisfied.

“Each marriage is different: People differ in their compatibility, their skills, and the external stressors they face,” McNulty said. “All of these play an important role in determining how successful a marriage will be and thus how much people should demand from it.”

McNulty said the research suggests people should be somewhat aware of what they can expect from a marriage before it happens. He conceded that this is difficult, which may explain why couples sometimes experience a mismatch between their standards and what is actually attainable. A combination of external and interpersonal constraints can limit various couples to different levels of achievement despite their motivation to reach high standards.

“Couples need to realize their strengths and weaknesses and calibrate their standards accordingly,” McNutly said.

Source: McNulty J. Should Spouses Be Demanding Less From Marriage? A Contextual Perspective on the Implications of Interpersonal Standards. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2016.