What the Marshmallow Test Says About Your Marriage
Have you heard of the marshmallow test? It was designed by Columbia psychologist Walter Mischel to determine whether children who could delay gratification would be more successful in life. Each child was given a single marshmallow and told if they could wait 2 hours before eating it, they would get TWO marshmallows. The ones who could wait, were shown to be more successful, have higher paying jobs and were less likely to get divorced.
You can watch the short video here that explains the test and results:
There have been studies since that argue the marshmallow test case sample should have been larger or more diverse, but even so, this study fascinates me. Could it be that simple? Could the ability to refrain from what you want now, in order to get what you really want later, protect your marriage?
Our low tolerance for discomfort
I work with a lot of people who want to leave their marriages because they are bored, restless, annoyed with their partner or simply “not feeling in love”. It seems these clients have a low tolerance for emotional discomfort (some would say “misery”). When they feel detached from their spouse long enough, they start to look for comfort elsewhere, whether that be friendships or affair partners. At the very least, they start fantasizing about divorce, which in turn increases their dissatisfaction and misery.
The irony is most marriages go through seasons (sometimes long seasons) of feeling detached, lonely or dissatisfied. Couples grow apart and focus on their individual desires, hobbies, careers or raising children; but if given time, they often find their way back to each other again. Their relationship matures as each individual also grows and matures and both gain the ability to be who they really are in the presence of who their spouse really is.
But as a society, we are becoming so self-absorbed, and it scares me. As our lives become more focused on what is best for us personally, we completely lose sight of our spouse and the goal of marriage. Our culture tells us ‘You only live once. You need to put your needs first’. If you believe this, you are believing a lie. If you live your life this way, you will be left always searching for something to satisfy you in the NOW….and it’ll be an exhausting never-ending quest.
Sometimes you must put off what you want today so you can have what you really want in the future. We tend to recognize this truth in other areas of our lives. We save money now so we can vacation or buy a car/home later. We work extra early in the week so we can afford to take Friday off.
Most of us married because we want a lifelong partnership. We want someone who is committed to us and won’t leave if we lose our money and our youthful appearance, or if we get sick with cancer. But you can’t have that kind of relationship if you aren’t willing to commit in the same way.
To stick it out when things get hard or lonely or even miserable.
To keep trying to fix the problems instead of silently seething or planning your escape.
Do you want to know what REAL love looks like?
It looks like two people refusing to give up on each other.
It looks like focusing more on your partner than yourself.
It looks like reaching out and doing whatever you can to fix the problems even when it seems your partner isn’t trying.
Finding your GRIT
Next time you find yourself fantasizing about what it would be like to get out of your marriage, think about the marshmallow test. Can you delay gratification long enough to work on what is making you unhappy? To get the marriage you want, you’ll need to place your focus on the future, NOT on what you are feeling today. GRIT in marriage. Growth, Resilience, Initiative, and Tenacity.
Philosopher Alan Watts refers to something called the “Backwards Law”. It states: Wanting a positive experience is a negative experience; accepting negative experience is a positive experience. It’s called ‘backwards’ for a reason. It works in reverse! If pursuing positive becomes a negative experience, then pursuing negative generates positive. Think of the pain you put yourself through in the gym in order to feel better and be healthier. Or, how facing your fears ultimately makes you more confident.
Author Mark Mason says (if you can get past his language he has some interesting things to say) “Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle.”
Do you want family events to be natural and loving rather than awkward and strained? Do you want to be able to spend the holidays together? Do you want to grandparent together? If you do, then choose commitment over feelings. GRIT in marriage is tough work now, but the payoff can be better than you imagine.