What Motivates You in Your Marriage? And…So What?

Psychologists speak of two “motivational systems” that people exhibit. In one, we pursue positive growth and meaningful experiences. In the other, we avoid distressing experiences. For instance, a person may be motivated to work to gain income, as an opportunity to learn and meet new people, and to have meaningful experiences. Or a person may work to avoid the distress of not having money or the stress of boredom or loneliness.

A study completed through the Universite of Basel and published in 2020 explored how these two motivational systems impact people within a marriage. The study involved 456 couples who completed two 14-day assessments. These two 14-day assessments were 10-12 months apart. During each 14-day assessment, participants submitted daily reported about how often and in what ways they had worked to avoid distress and conflict in their marriage OR to pursue positive meaningful experiences in their marriage. Results indicated that the motivational system one person used one day (either to avoid distress or to pursue positive interaction) influenced the motivational system their partner used the next day. Specifically, their partner used the same motivational system the following day. Also, the total daily levels of each type of motivation recorded in the first 14-day period predicted their partner’s actions during the second 14-day assessment period 10-12 months later. In other words, one person’s actions and motivations influenced their partner’s actions and motivations. When certain motivations were acted on consistently, the resulting actions developed into consistent patterns of behavior. 

In this study, the effect occurred regardless of relationship satisfaction. But the authors also cited previous studies that suggested behaviors aimed at enhancing the relationship (behaviors motivated toward positive growth and meaningful experiences) led to greater relationship satisfaction over time. Behavior aimed at avoiding distress and conflict, on the other hand, led to decreased relationship satisfaction over time because the root of the conflict was avoided and not resolved. In other words, the avoidance pattern, the “shut up and put-up strategy,” did not contribute to a happy marriage. It  decreased relationship satisfaction.

Putting this together suggests a wonderful way to improve your marriage—create a cycle of influence that will increase marital satisfaction. How? Begin with step one and what steps 2-4 unfold.

  1. Invest time and energy into behaviors that will enhance your relationship. This includes, among other things, expressing gratitude, sharing non-sexual physical affection, engaging in simple acts of service, and expressing fondness and admiration for your spouse.
  2. Your investment of time and energy to enhance your relationship will influence your partner to respond to you in a similar manner.
  3. Ironically, as your partner responds to you in a similar manner, their behavior will influence you to respond in the same manner to them…thus creating a cycle of positive influence.
  4. Over time, this cycle of positive influence will develop into new, “consistent patterns of thoughts, behaviors, and feelings” aimed at enhancing your marital feelings.

Isn’t it time to begin today?

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