We’ve all wondered about the secret to making a marriage last. While divorce rates have been declining since the ’80s, there’s still about a 39 percent chance that your happily-ever-after will end.
Of course, there’s no easy answer to the question of how to build a successful marriage. While we all approach our relationships differently, it takes a lot of work to stick with someone who sometimes makes you angry. But the good news? According to a study published last November in the journal Emotion, some of the icky hard stuff that comes with marriage seems to dissipate as you get older. In other words, maybe grandma does know a thing or two about keeping a partner happy.
The study’s authors were interested in better understanding how emotional behaviors change during a marriage as people age. For their data, they used videotaped conversations recorded over a 13-year period from a sample of 87 senior married couples from the San Francisco Bay Area. At three different points, couples were recorded chatting off the cuff about a disagreement in their marriage. Jeff and Satoko Davidson were two people associated with the research; they’d been married for almost 50 years.
“When things get really hard,” Satoko said in an interview, “we generally end up figuring out something funny about it or whatever. And that’s not to say that we live in this Pollyanna world where we don’t argue or anything because we still have disagreements and all that.”
“We’ve had a lot of stressful things in our life, but humor has pulled us through a lot of it,” Jeff added. The Davidsons weren’t the only ones who said they try to spend more time laughing than bickering. Ultimately, researchers found that negative emotional behavior—such as being belligerent or defensive—decreased as men and women got older, and positive emotional behavior—that is, humor and enthusiasm—increased. The two exceptions were that women tended to become more domineering and less affectionate as they aged.
The findings support the idea of love evolving as we age, which other researchers have explored. As the authors write, a 1985 study proposed “that the beginning stages of a relationship are marked by passionate love, whereas adults who have been married for longer periods of time experience a shift toward companionate love. Humor, characterized by good-natured teasing, jokes, and silliness, and validation, characterized by the expression of understanding and active listening behavior, could be argued to be an expression of companionate love, whereas affection, characterized by caring statements and compliments, could represent a form of passionate love.”
Robert Levenson is a UC Berkeley psychology professor and lead author on the study. In a statement, he pointed out: “Our findings shed light on one of the great paradoxes of late-life. 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.”
The bottom line: marriage isn’t always going to be all chocolate-covered strawberries and red wine. But if you stick it out, you may discover it gets easier—and that may help you cope with other hard stuff.
As Jeff Davidson (the aforementioned study participant) put it: “I don’t think you should just tolerate your marriage. I think you should appreciate your marriage and look at the positive parts of it and really value those.”