Studies show that those in long-term marriages tend to view one another more positively over time.
“Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?”
Funny as this old joke is, research keeps confirming that we should want to live in this particular institution. Marriage, it seems, is one of the leading indicators of a happy and healthy life. “There is a considerable body of evidence that having meaningful, close social relationships throughout adulthood, including through later life, is related to better physical health, including lower risk for cardiovascular disease and for overall mortality,” says Dr. Susan W. Lehmann, clinical director of the division of geriatric psychiatry and neuropsychiatry and director of the Geriatric Psychiatry Day Hospital at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
A new University of California—Berkeley study adds more evidence that marriage is good for mental health. Researchers followed 87 married couples in their 40s or 60s who had been married at least 15 years. The couples came to a lab every three to five years for 13 years. They were videotaped while engaged in three conversations, each about 15 minutes long:
- First, discuss what had been going on in their lives for the past few years.
- Second, talk about an area of conflict in their marriage.
- Third, talk about something they enjoyed doing together.
The couples were measured for physiological responses like heart rate and respiration. Later, trained coders analyzed the tapes for emotional responses such as anger, sadness and humor. “These give us a pretty good snapshot of the nature of their relationship,” says study senior author Robert Levenson, a UC Berkeley psychology professor.
The results show that, over the years, the sometimes testy and contentious interactions that appeared in the early conversations tended to mellow. The findings, published in the journal Emotion, demonstrate an increase in such positive behaviors as humor and affection and a decrease in negative behaviors such as defensiveness and criticism.
“Our findings shed light on one of the great paradoxes of late life,” Levenson said in a release accompanying the study. “Despite experiencing the loss of friends and family, older people in stable marriages are relatively happy and experience low rates of depression and anxiety. Marriage has been good for their mental health.”
Getting Long-Term Martial Satisfaction
It has long been thought that emotions flatten or deteriorate in old age. “The most common idea was that marriages burn out over time,” Levenson says. “People become emotionally sad, disengaged and live out their years in a less emotional way. That was the dominant idea. What we found was kind of surprising given that cultural wisdom about marriage. Actually, subjects became more emotionally positive and less negative over time. They did not burn out.”
In general, there is a relationship between the quality of communication between spouses and marital satisfaction at all ages, Lehman says. “Other studies have shown that when couples are not satisfied with their marriage, they are more likely to report and exhibit negative feelings, and this is true of both younger and older couples. At all ages, mutual respectful communication between partners is key in attaining marital satisfaction, as is being able to overlook small areas of conflict and to focus on increasing positive behaviors towards each other. This has beneficial effects in promoting a caring and sustaining relationship.”
Levenson points out that his research results are simply statistical and that variations exist within individual couples. He also adds the caveat that all the couples in the study were in established, long-term marriages. “They had gotten over the speed bumps that cause marriages to break up in the early years,” he says, such as the birth of a first child or financial struggles when young. “That may be what we’re getting at here,” he says. “If you can get through that and hang in there, there comes a time when relationships, even if they are not the greatest, do develop increasing positivity.”
More Positive Bickering for Couples
Levenson is reminded of a deli he went to as a kid on Long Island. “This old married couple ran the deli, and it was like going to a Broadway show,” he says with a laugh. “You’d see them arguing all the time while eating your lunch. I think that’s what happens – the bickering has a familiarity and appreciation that grows over time. It’s bickering in a more positive way.”
Other studies seem to confirm this idea. Lehman says a study from 2007 of middle-aged and older married couples found that, in satisfied marriages, spouses tend to see each other’s behavior in a more positive light. “Other research has found that older couples report lower levels of disagreement about money, religion and children than younger couples. Older adults tend to experience fewer conflicts with close partners, and also tend to consider these conflicts in a less negative light than younger adults,” she says.
Part of this comes from the act of aging itself. As people get older, they prioritize and maximize positive emotions and minimize negative emotions, Lehman says. “With age, people tend to have better emotional regulation and tend to respond to conflicts by letting a difficult situation pass.” Older adults are also better than younger adults in diffusing difficult interpersonal conflicts. “These aspects of improved emotional regulation with age may underscore why individuals in long-term marriages have been reported to have higher levels of marital satisfaction,” she says.
All of which points to the conclusion that, yes, marriage really is a wonderful institution.