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The One Question You Should Ask Your Spouse

Jan. 28, 2015

Here is a question you might never want to ask the person you love (but that maybe you should): If we were no longer together, do you think you would be happier? My guess is that you think you already know the answer to this question. But if new economic research is anything to go by, you probably don’t, and not knowing could put your relationship at risk.

Back in the late eighties, the National Survey of Families and Households asked more than 4,000 married couples to individually answer two questions. The first asked them to rate on a scale from “much worse” to “much better” how their happiness level would change if they were to separate. The second asked them to rate (on the same scale) how their partner’s happiness level would change under the same circumstances.

Surveyors then returned six years later to see if the couples were still married.

Economists Leora Friedberg and Steven Stern, at the University of Virginia, have recently looked at this data and found that, unsurprisingly, people who thought they would be no worse off being single than they were being married were more likely to end up that way. What is more surprising, however, is that people who overestimated how happy their partners were in their relationship were even more likely to find themselves on their own six years later.

According to the data, husbands and wives are poor judges of how happy their partners might be if they were to divorce; 54% of women and 59% of men made predictions about their partner’s unhappiness in the case of divorce that differed from their spouse’s predictions about their own unhappiness.

Women, on average, tended to think that their husbands would be worse off than their husbands thought they would be if they found themselves single again. And men, on average, tended to think that their wives would be better off than their wives thought they would be without them.

Overall, about 7% of couples in the sample were divorced by the time the second survey was conducted. Among those who correctly assessed how unhappy their partner might be in the case of separation, the divorce rate was less than 6%. Among men who seriously overestimated how unhappy a divorce would make their wives, 13% ended up on their own; among women who seriously overestimated how unhappy their husbands might be, 14.5% end up divorced.

How does misunderstanding how happy, or unhappy, a partner might be in the case of divorce lead to actual divorce? It comes down to how couples settled the myriad conflicts that are part of every marriage: through bargaining.

Men and women who overstate how committed their partner is to their relationship also tend to overstate how much bargaining power they have whenever the couple has a disagreement. This overconfidence encourages them to push to have their own way more than they might have done had they correctly assessed the security of their relationship.

The moral of this story is: When you pick your battles make sure you know exactly how willing your partner is to walk out the door.

It’s not all bad news, however. According to the authors, the love husbands and wives feel for their partners encourages them to compromise more willingly than they might if their only goal was to stay married. If that willingness to comprise for the sake of love is sufficient, then even couples that incorrectly estimate their partners’ willingness to leave have a shot at staying together.

This article originally appeared at Time Ideas. 

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