3 Things Going On in the Heads of Happily Married Couples

As a marriage speaker and writer, I’ve always been fascinated with marriage research. Yes, you can call me a geek; my wife lovingly does, and she is not wrong. During 2020, I had even more time on my hands to nerd out on marriage research. What I discovered was so fascinating that I decided to write another book, Us in Mind: How Changing Your Thoughts Can Change Your Marriage. While I wasn’t excited about the writing process, I was excited for people to have the information and the application because I dare say most don’t know either.

One of the most telling pieces of research was conducted by Dr. Helen Fisher, a renowned biological anthropologist, who studied brain scans of people who had been married an average of 21 years and reported they were still madly in love. They all showed similar higher than normal levels of activity in three brain regions. Even if your brain is not naturally wired this way, you can begin to love this way all the same. Here are the 3 things happening in happily married couples’ heads.

1. Positive Illusions

These still-madly-in-love couples had a high activity level in the area of the brain that is responsible for positive illusions. Having positive illusions is defined as the simple—but sometimes challenging—ability to overlook what you don’t like about somebody to focus on what you do like. In other words, this study affirms that your thoughts matter most to your marriage. For happily married people, their thoughts guide them toward having the marriage they hope for. Whether they are born that way or whether they learned it, their mindsets are set to think well of their spouse. And thinking highly of their spouse ultimately affects behavior toward their spouse. A spouse you think highly of is a well-loved spouse. For you, this may be great news. This is just scientific evidence of why you are crushing it. But for many of us, finding out that our thoughts matter most to our marriage doesn’t seem like good news. But it can be done by becoming intentional about your thoughts about your spouse.

Action Step: Make a list of all the things you love about your spouse. Refer to it and add to it often. Do you think this sounds too simple to matter? That’s the beauty of it; it’s simple, and it will matter.

2. Empathy

The second thing Dr. Helen Fisher discovered in the brains of happily married people was that there were high levels of activity in the part of the brain that is responsible for empathy. Whether these couples’ brains were wired this way from birth or learned it along the way, the end result is the same: more empathy. This discovery was the most impactful on my own marriage. While I have empathy for my wife, my natural approach communicates the opposite. For years, when she shared something challenging with me, I always went into fix-it mode. I’m like a relational Bob the Builder, “Can I fix it? Yes I can!” I tried to fix her problems by giving her advice. That wasn’t what she was looking for and needed from me. She wanted empathy from me. While I can still get into fix-it mode with her, I have learned that a simple “That is understandable” is relational superglue.

3. Controlled Emotions

The third discovery, from the heads of happily married couples, was a higher level of activity in the area of the brain responsible for controlled emotions. We all know that losing our temper and/or being careless with our words and responses can lead to a quick disconnection from our wives. It is no wonder couples who control their emotions are happier. Controlling our emotions gives us a chance to choose a loving and productive response versus a childish reaction. If you struggle with this ability, you are not alone. As a person who has struggled with ADHD my entire life, I have often said and done things I regretted. But I have hope. While I am not perfect at it, I have learned a new way. I have learned that pausing and taking a breath makes me a much better husband, resulting in a much happier marriage. If I can do it, I promise you can do it too.

Sound off: What is one thing you keep in mind that helps you love your wife well?

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Why should we try to see the best in people?”