Wondering if your significant other is really "the one"? If you don't want to spend the time answering 36 questions about love, there's an easier alternative: answering these two questions about how your partner feels.
Economists Leora Friedberg and Steven Stern of the University of Virginia examined answers from 4,242 households who were asked two questions, six years apart:
"How happy are you in your marriage relative to how happy you would be if you weren't in the marriage?"
"How do you think your spouse answered that question?"
By documenting both sets of answers, the study, published in the journal International Economic Review, traced how the responses related to the couples' divorce rates. And as it turns out, knowing how happy your partner is really matters.
Being on the same page is crucial. Only 40.9% of couples studied accurately identified how their spouse would answer the question, meaning that almost two-thirds of the couples had no idea how their partner actually felt. That misperception, the researchers predicted, would affect how the couples communicated.
That prediction is explained by the bargaining theory: The more someone miscalculates their partner's happiness, the more likely they are to "bargain" too strongly, pushing too hard in a relationship that isn't as strong as they think.
Sure enough, the couples who didn't have a good sense of each other's happiness fared worse, with higher divorce rates. The average observed divorce rate was 7.3%; among couples where one partner overestimated the other's unhappiness, however, it was between 9% and 11.7%. It climbed even higher, to between 13.1% and 14.5%, when there was a significant misperception.
The opposite was true for couples who both reported they would be worse off if they separated — their divorce rate was only 4.8%.
"If I believe my wife is really happy in the marriage, I might push her to do more chores or contribute a larger portion of the family income," Stern said in a press release. "If, unbeknownst to me, she's actually just lukewarm about the marriage, or she's got a really good-looking guy who is interested in her, she may decide those demands are the last straw and decide a divorce would be a better option for her."
Even with misunderstandings, love helps. But the researchers had another interesting — and rather encouraging — finding. Even among couples who misjudged each other's happiness, the actual divorce rate after six years was lower than the bargaining theory model predicted. The explanation? Love.
"This data shows that people aren't being as tough negotiators as they could be," Friedberg said in the press release. Turns out, partners in love actually hold back and don't drive a hard bargain for their significant others. "The idea of love here is that you get some happiness from your spouse simply being happy."
Still, being on the same page is key. This specific survey looked at wedded couples, but the results can theoretically extend to all couples, married or not. Knowing what page your partner is on is crucial to communicating successfully, and as we well know, communication in relationships is king. If you have that with your current partner, you could certainly be on a road to relationship success.
Studies like this speak to our need to find an answer. Obviously, there isn't a simple way to tell whether you're truly in love, or whether your current partner is the one with whom you should grow old. But that doesn't mean science hasn't tried; Stern and Friedberg's study is the latest that attempt to pinpoint love.
The studies are appealing precisely because they give us potential answers to complex questions. As Mic's Ellie Krupnick wrote about the 36-question survey popularized by the New York Times, "We can't control who we fall in love with, no more than we can write mathematical equations to conjure up a Prince or Princess Charming. But the beauty of the 36 questions is that they remind us what we can control, taking the complex question of love and distilling it down into something more attainable for even the most romantically frustrated among us."
In the end, the questions all serve the same purpose: They give us a rational, methodical way to explore the very much irrational and unpredictable nature of love.