In Brief

After a tough day, women are more likely than men to criticize or show anger toward their spouses, while men tend to respond to daytime stress by withdrawing from their mates--yet all these behaviors may be signs of a happy marriage for both sexes, according to a study in the March issue of the Journal of Family Psychology (Vol. 18, No. 1).

In fact, women in the study who reported being in satisfying marriages were more likely than dissatisfied women to behave angrily by, for example, shouting at their husbands after a busy workday.

Why would such reactions contribute to happy marriages? Wives who are happier with their marriages may feel more comfortable and freer to vent frustrations to their spouse after a stressful day, whereas dissatisfied wives may feel they have to suppress their anger, suggests lead researcher Marc S. Schulz, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College. In satisfying marriages, he says, husbands may also increase their support--such as with family responsibilities and household chores--when their wives are angry after a difficult workday.

The study found a different pattern for men: Those who reported being in satisfying marriages were less likely than dissatisfied men to be angry and critical toward their wives after a stressful workday. Men tended to rely more than women on withdrawing from their spouse after a bad workday, found the researchers, who also included Philip A. Cowan, PhD, and Carolyn Pape Cowan, PhD, both of the University of California, Berkeley, and Robert T. Brennan, EdD, of Harvard University.

The researchers uncovered the results in surveys of 42 married couples with an oldest child in kindergarten. Couples were asked about their workday pace, mood and marital behavior at the end of the workday and at bedtime for three days. The men in the study averaged 43 hours of paid work per week, while women averaged 25 hours per week.

In addition to revealing the anger expression-marital satisfaction link for women, the study found that:

  • Men tend to withdraw from interacting with their spouse in the evenings following a workday that triggered negative emotions such as irritability, distress and nervousness more so than after a busy, task-filled workday.

  • Men and women displayed, on average, the same amount of withdrawal and angry behavior. It was only under stress that gender differences showed up in marital behavior.

  • Women reported withdrawing from their husbands after fast-paced workdays but not after stressful days. In fact, maritally satisfied women were more likely to withdraw from their partners than dissatisfied women following busy workdays.

"Negative arousal for women often leads them to engage with their partners, but when they are overburdened with role demands they might lack the energy to interact constructively with their husbands and they may withdraw," Schulz suggests.