The Number-One Quality of Happy Marriages (You’ll Never Guess)

Frustration can build up between couples when each person's needs are unmet — but it doesn't have to, and here's why

Tension easily accumulates in marriages when couples fail to effectively communicate their needs to each other. Both spouses become frustrated by unmet needs — or by the inability to meet the other’s needs.

A wife says to her husband, “I need to feel loved.” So the next day he brings her a bouquet of roses. She seems unimpressed — and he feels confused.

A husband says to his wife, “You never listen to me.” She feels hurt. She thinks she’s a good listener. She heard everything he said before that. What he really wants, and isn’t saying, is for her to try his suggestion for solving a problem.

Frustration builds up when a wife or husband longs for something the spouse isn’t delivering. Frustration also grows when a husband or wife feels inadequate because the person’s best efforts to meet the partner’s needs often fall short.

The National Survey of Marital Strengths by Prepare/Enrich identified communication as the number-one strength of happy marriages. Couple flexibility was second. In the happiest marriages, couples eliminate the need for mind-reading or guesswork. By doing this, even when communication fails, neither spouse feels clueless for very long. They figure out how to get their messages through and understand each other’s needs. They refuse to let tension and frustration take root.

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Instead of saying, “I need to feel loved,” and leaving it at that, a wife in one of these happiest marriages tells her husband how to do it. “I want you to sit with me and hold my hand or put your arm around me when we’re watching TV.” She expresses her need in a positive way, without complaining or criticizing.

A husband who wants his input valued by his wife won’t say, “You never listen to me.” Instead, he tells her what he wants, saying, “I really want you to give my suggestion a try.”

Many of us learned as children that it’s not okay to say what you want. When we made our wishes known, we received painful responses from adults, who told us we were selfish, undeserving, unreasonable, or worse. To protect ourselves from more hurt, we kept our desires hidden, or resorted to giving subtle hints we hoped would be understood.

Related: For Maximum Happiness, Find the Time for Each Other

Some of us for, whatever reason, just didn’t learn how to communicate our wishes effectively. And some spouses feel something special has happened if their partner successfully guesses or intuitively knows what they want. As special as that may be, couples who learn to communicate their needs clearly tend to be happier than those who wait for their spouses to guess what they want.

While it’s important for spouses to specify what they want, it’s just as important for their husbands and wives who receive this information to make the appropriate adjustments in their behavior to respond to those desires. Often, we rely on stereotypes that don’t fit in our relationship — such as when I discovered my wife preferred living flowers over cut roses. The next time I brought her flowers, she received a rose bush for her flower bed.

When they hear what their spouse wants, husbands and wives in the happiest marriages often change their behavior in order to meet that need. That’s demonstrating flexibility.

Related: Be Happier in Your Marriage

Spouses who make the extra effort to offer specific examples of what they want from their mate, and do it in positive terms, are more likely to get more of their relationship needs met and see more dreams come true.

The spouses who excel at meeting needs and fulfilling dreams practice flexibility so that they adapt to the needs of the man or woman they promised to love.

Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”