Study: Marriage Grows Easier In Old Age; Couples Fight Less, Laugh More


Long-term research shows that couples married at least 35 years criticize one another less frequently, show more affection, humor in stressful situations.


BERKELEY, Calif. — Ever feel like your marriage is losing its luster and all the romance is being replaced with petty bickering? Don’t worry, there’s light — and lightheartedness — at the end of the tunnel. A new study finds that elderly spouses mature to see one another through rose-colored glasses, and all those stress-laden spats that mar us in our middle-aged years are eventually replaced with laughter and levity.

It may be hard to believe for some of us, but researchers from the University of California at Berkeley say their videotaped evidence is all the proof they need. As wives and husbands age, their negativity towards one another fades. Those married longer than 35 years showed more tenderness than younger couples.

“Our findings shed light on one of the great paradoxes of late life,” says study senior author Robert Levenson, a UC Berkeley psychology professor, in a news release. “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.”

For the study, Levenson and his team followed 87 couples, mostly middle-aged or older, who’d been married between 15 and 35 years. The authors monitored the couples over a 13-year period, interviewing the spouses every few years on video and having them discuss experiences they participated in together and any conflicts that have cropped up.

Participants’ body language and conversational behaviors were also evaluated, with researchers coding the discussions using categories of various emotions, such as anger, fear, sadness, whining, affection, humor, and enthusiasm.

They found that couples, regardless of satisfaction in the relationship, demonstrated more positive emotional behaviors as they aged, and fewer negative ones. In particular, the spouses exhibited more humor and affection and cut back on the amount of criticism and defensiveness they showed during the earlier portion of the study.

“These results provide behavioral evidence that is consistent with research suggesting that, as we age, we become more focused on the positives in our lives,” notes co-author Alice Verstaen, who conducted the study as a Ph.D. student and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System.

The study also showed that wives tended to wear their hearts on their sleeves far more frequently than their husbands, and that they were more likely to be less affectionate and particularly domineering. Still, most partners appeared far happier with one another in old age.

So for those who think that growing elderly brings about high levels of grumpiness and dissatisfaction, it’s all the more reason to stick with your marriage during the tough times. Experiencing your senior years with a partner may be the key to a comfortable retirement.

“Given the links between positive emotion and health, these findings underscore the importance of intimate relationships as people age, and the potential health benefits associated with marriage,” says Verstaen.

The full study was published November 29, 2018 in the journal Emotion.

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