Positive expectations for marriage don't always predict a couple's satisfaction, says an article published this spring in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 86, No. 5). Rather, it's more important that a couple's expectations be realistic, given their coping skills and environmental stress levels.

The study adds fuel to the fire of an ongoing debate over whether positively based marital expectations are truly beneficial to couples, says lead researcher James McNulty, PhD, an Ohio State University assistant professor of psychology. One line of reasoning suggests that positive expectations lead to positive outcomes. Another line, however, suggests that positive expectations--especially unreasonably high ones--can lead to disappointment and marital dysfunction. McNulty's study supports both lines, with a possible explanation for the difference.

"Positive expectations can lead to improved circumstances because they affect and improve behavior," McNulty says. "But, if people have high expectations that don't pan out, they can be very disappointed."

McNulty and his co-author, psychologist Benjamin Karney, PhD, of the University of Florida, reached their result by studying whether the quality of spouses' interactions and tendencies to blame each other for bad outcomes moderated longitudinal effects of positive expectations. They studied 82 newlywed couples in Florida over four years by measuring their expectations, satisfaction, problem-solving skills and relationship attributions at baseline and then, every six months, their relationship satisfaction.

They found that the couples whose expectations matched their relationship skills were most satisfied. For example, couples who were bad at sorting out disagreements or had tendencies to blame each other were likely to maintain initial levels of satisfaction with their marriages only if they didn't have high expectations going in.

The research also found that satisfaction was lowest in couples whose expectations didn't match their skills--those with high expectations and low skills, and those with low expectations and high skills. It may seem counterintuitive that spouses who entered their relationship with positive abilities but fewer positive expectations experienced declines in satisfaction, McNulty says.

"Shouldn't they be pleasantly surprised by the positive outcomes that their skills should provide?" he asks. But low expectations may have prevented these couples from using their skills and achieving positive experiences, he says.

Popular lore indicating all couples should have high expectations if they want their marriages to work may be misguided, McNulty says. Rather, advice about expectations needs to be tailored to individual couples, he explains.

"A therapist should point out [a couple's] problems and help couples deal with them, but also consider helping them to limit their unrealistic expectations," McNulty says.

However, not all couples should be advised against high hopes, he emphasizes: Couples who have good skills should expect the best.