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Couples That Play Together Not Always Having Fun

Spending free time with your spouse doesn't mean your marriage is strong, study says

FRIDAY, May 10, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- It seems the bond between doing things with your spouse and being happy with your marriage is much weaker than previously thought.

That's the claim of a new study in the May issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

The study says just because couples enjoy the same leisure activities doesn't mean they'll actually spend time doing them together. Even if they do team up for recreation or relaxation, it isn't a given that a couple will feel better about their marriage.

The researchers tracked 73 couples for 13 years, from when they were newlyweds in 1981. The spouses were questioned individually in 1983, and again in 1994 and 1995 about which leisure activities they liked and disliked, the amount of time they spent in shared and unshared leisure activities, and their overall marital satisfaction.

There were some surprising findings, the study authors say.

Couples who liked many of the same activities didn't necessarily do more things together. When couples did do things that both enjoyed, the husbands were happier than their wives when asked about it two years and 13 years into the marriage.

"You'd think it would be easier for them to find activities to do together if they had similar ideas, but we didn't find that," says Renate M. Houts, a study author and a research statistician psychologist at RTI International, a non-profit research institute.

Couples who did things that only one spouse enjoyed were even less happy two and 13 years after they were married.

The study also found that wives were less happy early in their marriage and became more dissatisfied with their marriage over time when couples spent more time doing things that only husbands liked.

"We weren't expecting activities that husbands liked that wives didn't like to be as important as they seem to be," Houts says.

However, the more time husbands spent doing leisure activities on their own, the less happy wives were early in the marriage and the less satisfied both wives and husbands became over time.

The study included a list of 50 activities covering various types of sports, exercise, relaxation, entertainment and socializing.

"It is surprising what they've found here because we've assumed for so long this idea that compatibility, or at least companionship in doing things together, was so important," says Shirley A. Hill, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Kansas.

However, this study challenges that assumption and may signal a need to rethink ideas about what makes a marriage work, she adds.

Hill notes that companionship and compatibility are two different things.

"So, even when there's companionship and you're actually doing things together, if it's not compatible in terms of your enjoying being with that person, it doesn't necessarily lead to marital satisfaction," she says.

There are some gender differences that could be a factor in these findings. For example, women tend to look at relationships in a more interconnected way.

"For them, if they're doing an activity that they don't particularly enjoy, then it really does affect marital satisfaction," Hill says.

Men are more likely to go along with some of the things women want to do without using their enjoyment of that particular activity as a measure of marital satisfaction, she says.

Couples need to accept that they can enjoy separate activities, and not use those differences as a basis for judging their marriage.

"An important point that might be made for couples is that it's OK to have some level of independent activity, that you don't have to drag your spouse along for that activity," Hill says.

What to Do: You can find a list of marriage-related resources at the National Marriage Project. And here's another site on family and marriage.

SOURCES: Renate M. Houts, Ph.D., research statistician psychologist, RTI International, Research Triangle Park, N.C.; Shirley A. Hill, Ph.D., associate professor, sociology, University of Kansas, Lawrence; May 2002 Journal of Marriage and Family.
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