The Secret to a Happy Marriage Is...

by Emma Cueto

Marriage is hard, and trying to navigate those first few years can be a very strange, challenging experience. But according to some researchers, one secret to a happy marriage is...having a big wedding? Weird.

According to researchers at the University of Denver and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, couples who had more guests at their wedding are more likely to be happy in their marriages down the road. The researchers looked at 418 heterosexual couples and tracked them through the first five years of their marriage. They found that couples whose questionnaire responses were consistent with a "higher-quality" marriage were more likely to have had a formal wedding with a long guest list.

At first glance it's tempting to say that these results probably just mean that people with big weddings are the sorts of people who might care enough about appearances to lie on questionnaires, or that rich people who can afford a huge wedding are less likely to have the kind of financial stress that can tear apart a newly married couple. But although there isn't much anyone can do to measure how honest people are about self-reporting, the researchers did control for factors such as income, race, gender and religiosity, meaning that explanation at least doesn't really account for the data. Of course, they didn't control for parental income, which can provide a safety net that might make for smoother sailing in a new marriage, but the researchers still think that the number of wedding guests itself might actually have an impact.

"[T]here is some reason to believe that having more witnesses at a wedding may actually strengthen marital quality," the authors write in the study. "[C]ommitment is strengthened when it is publicly declared because individuals strive to maintain consistency between what they say and what they do. ... The desire for consistency is likely enhanced by public expressions of intention."

In other words, if you make a promise in front of a whole lot of people, you're more likely to work extra hard to keep that promise than if you make it in secret. On the one hand, that sounds kind of shallow — after all, it sort of implies people only stay married because they're afraid to embarrass themselves by going back on their word. But on the other hand, it's important to consider that humans are hard wired to be social creatures, so really, it isn't so weird that having a social component to our big life events makes our brains take them more seriously.

Of course, this doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of happy couples who got hitched at a drive through in Las Vegas, or that there aren't plenty of miserable couples with guest lists to rival Kate Middleton's. So if you're planning a wedding, don't stress too much about how many guests you can invite. After all, there are all sorts of factors that go into making a marriage work well.