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The Scientific Way To Figure Out If You’re In An Unhappy Marriage

Marital happiness may seem subjective, but it really isn't.

At Fatherly we talk a lot about happy families, because being part of one is pretty darn important. Children from unhappy families are prone to depression, aggression, and under-performance in school. They’re more likely to be victims of abuse, and to suffer from a host of injuries and illnesses. But what is the scientific definition of an “unhappy” family? Even Tolstoy was confused: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” he wrote. The truth, however, is that unhappiness is eminently measurable, and scientists have developed robust ways of calculating it. Here’s how to figure out if you’re part of a happy family (and happy marriage), according to science:

It’s All About Your Marriage

Research on children from broken homes usually define family unhappiness by the relationship between the parents, as perceived by the children. In one of the most famous studies on the subject, researchers calculated family happiness by assessing “the amount of parental quarreling, arguing, attempted domination by each parent, lack of mutual activities and interest, and an overall evaluation of happiness made by the [researcher] as reported by their children” and then also rated “the marital happiness of both parents was rated average, unhappy, or very unhappy by the adolescent.”

In other words, family happiness is the objective reality of your marital happiness—plus what your kids think.

How To Calculate Marital Bliss

Marital happiness may seem subjective, but it really isn’t. Until recently, psychologists used one of two major scales for evaluating happiness in a marriage: The Marital Adjustment Test (MAT) and the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS). The MAT is the more straightforward of the two—it involves 15 questions and a grading rubric, and higher scores mean happier marriages. The questions start with a general “happiness rating” (35 points for “perfectly happy”; 15 points for “happy” and 0 points for “unhappy”) and a few terrifying standalone questions (“if you had to live your life over, do you think you would marry the same person?” 15 points for saying yes). The rest of the survey focuses on arguments‚ with specific questions about how, when, and how strongly couples disagree. The circumstances matter. Couples that “always agree” about sex, for instance gain 15 points. Always agreeing about the in-laws garners only 5 points.

There are also some fascinating nuggets in the MAT. For instance, couples get 0 points if the husband always gives in to end a fight but they nab 2 points if the wife always gives in (10 points for coming to a solution by mutual give-and-take, but we all know that’s not how most arguments fizzle out). This implies that a marriage is unhealthy if one side is giving in all the time, but (for whatever reason) more unhealthy if the husband gives in all the time than the wife. Huh!

The DAS is twice as long as the MAT, and frankly more interesting. The survey asks how often couples kiss, how often they laugh together, and how often they consider divorce. But even on this scale, 15 questions are reserved just for arguments. If there’s one theme in both assessments, it’s this—the major decider of happy versus unhappy marriages is how often you’re arguing, what you’re arguing about, and how close that issue lies to the core of your marriage.

A Simpler Way To Find Out If Your Marriage Sucks

But who has the patience for lengthy questionnaires and probing questions about how often your spouse says she’s too tired for sex (we’re looking at you, Dyadic Adjustment Scale)? Fortunately, there’s a much leaner assessment that scientists began using in the late 1990s, called the Relationship Pleasure Scale. Developing the scale took the University of Central Florida’s Marriage & Family Research Institute several years and involved a meta-analysis of nearly 1,400 studies, but in the end they settled on a simple, seven-item (adverb-heavy) scale: sensuality, sexuality, intellectuality, emotionality, friendship/trust/shared interests, and “what’s been built together”. A score of 0 for any section indicates no satisfaction, a score of 3 means “satisfied”, and a score of 5 translates to an effusive “all I’ve ever dreamed of”.

After filling out the survey, couples can tally their scores like they’re taking a relationship quiz in a teen magazine. You add up all of the numbers and multiply by 4. A perfect score is 100. The national average score is 88. And thanks to a nifty online tool, you can actually measure your own relationship satisfaction here using the Pleasure Scale.