Like technology, wine, and your 401K, marriage only gets better with time—if you manage to stay married, of course. That’s according to a study published recently in Social Networks and the Life Course.
Researchers out of Penn State and Brigham Young were interested in better understanding how relationships change over the course of a marriage. The question is a pretty interesting one, considering the idea of staying with one person for the next 30, 40, or 50 years may be a lot to deal with for some people. Past studies have consistently found that married people report their relationships with their spouses become less positive over time, and wives are generally not as happy as their partners. So, that’s something to look forward to.
The study's authors used data from research gathered over the span of 20 years (between 1980 and 2000) that included responses from 1,617 individuals. Their goal was to measure how happiness, shared activities, and discord changed over time for couples who stayed married for a long time and for those who divorced.
Ultimately, the study found that happiness and shared activities (such as eating dinner and working on projects around the house together) declined gradually over the first 20 years of marriage, then stabilized. After 25 years of marriage, however, couples reported spending more time together, and by year 40, they were spending about as much time together as they had that first wonderful year they tied the knot. Researchers also found that reports of marital problems declined continuously over the study period.
Unsurprisingly, couples who ultimately divorced reported more conflict in their first year of marriage and a sharp decline in happiness and shared activities in later years when compared to couples who remained married.
Marriages do deteriorate if you let them, people. As the study’s authors write, “Spouses become disillusioned as they learn more about one another, conflict inevitably emerges and takes its toll on relationships, spouses become increasingly different from one another over time and drift apart, and stressful events and social demands accumulate over the life course.”
Dr. Paul Amato, a sociologist at Penn State and lead author on the study, told the Institute for Family Studies in an interview that in some cases, divorce is the best outcome. “We know from previous work, however, that many divorces are NOT preceded by serious relationship problems,” he said, dropping some profound knowledge. “Boredom, rather than misery, characterizes many unstable marriages. In these cases, infidelity is often the trigger that leads one partner to leave the union. In contrast, when couples stick together through difficult times, remain faithful to one another, and actively work to resolve problems, positive long-term outcomes (while not guaranteed) are common.”
“Our research shows that positive outcomes for couples in long-term marriages are the norm. Contrary to what many people think, marital quality does not inevitably decline—it tends to remain high or even improve over the decades. This knowledge should encourage most couples to look to the future with a degree of optimism.”
In the grand scheme of things, maybe 20 years isn’t that long of a time to wait for peak happiness in your marriage—especially if you’re in it for a lifetime of love.