Many people speak of the honeymoon period of marriage. A time immediately after getting married when everything seems perfect, when couples are completely enamoured with each other and never fight.
Couples who have been married for a while will tell you the honeymoon period doesn’t always last, with bickering becoming a regular part of life. But now researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have found that as couples age, bickering can be replaced with humour and acceptance towards one and other.
The researchers examined filmed conversations of 87 couples of middle or older age who had been married between 15 to 35 years. Beginning in the 1980s, the researchers followed the emotional interactions of the couples over a 13 year period. As the couples aged the researchers found they showed greater tenderness and humour.
The 15 minute interactions captured on video show couples discussing shared experiences or areas of conflict. The listening or speaking behaviours of the couples were rated taking into account their facial expression, body language, tone of voice and the content of their speech. Emotions were then categorised into anger, disgust, contempt, domineering behaviour, tension, fear, defensiveness, affection, whining, sadness, validation, enthusiasm and humour.
Regardless of levels of satisfaction in their relationship, the researchers found middle age or older couples had an increase in positive emotional behaviour.
“During discussions of difficult marital issues, we found that couples in long-term marriages showed increases in positive emotional behaviors, for example humor and validation, and decreases in negative emotional behaviors, for example defensiveness and belligerence, over a 13 year time period,” Alice Verstaen, PhD, co author of the study, told Theravive.
“This finding is important because it tells us that as these marriages matured (by the end of our study all couples had been married at least 35 years and the older couples had been married over 50 years) the spouses became better at handling disagreements in a more positive, less negative way,” she said.
The findings of the study go against the popular belief that emotions stale and affections fade in the later stages of marriage.
“Previous research had suggested that after the honeymoon period emotions within couples became more negative, and that may be true in the period between the first couple of years of marriage and fifteen years later. What our findings suggest, however, is that when couples have been together beyond that time, that warmth and understanding grow, while the negative emotions that may have clouded previous arguments seem to decrease,” Verstaen said.
“This bodes well for their abilities to solve the many problems and challenges that marriages inevitably face over time. Although other studies have addressed the question of how marriages differ at different stages of life, this study was unique in that it followed a sample of well-established marriages longitudinally over time and repeatedly observed their actual emotional behaviors,” she said.
Published in the journal Emotion, the study found that as they aged couples were more likely to show behaviour like humour of affection, and less likely to show negative behaviour like defensiveness or criticism.
The study from UC Berkeley has been running for 25 years and examined over 150 long term marriages. The participants are heterosexual couples and are now in their 70s, 80s or 90s.
“Prior to this study, most research on marriage had focused on younger marriages that ended in separation and divorce. Our study was designed to focus on marriages that had lasted for many years. The idea was that these successful longer-term marriages could provide important clues as to what makes marriages succeed and stay together over time,” Verstaen said.
“Couples started participating in our study when they had been married at least 15 years, with some being married over 35 years at the onset of the study. Previous research had suggested that after the honeymoon period emotions within couples became more negative, and that may be true in the period between the first couple of years of marriage and fifteen years later. What our findings suggest, however, is that when couples have been together beyond that time, that warmth and understanding grow, while the negative emotions that may have clouded previous arguments seem to decrease,” she said.
The researchers hypothesise that a leaning towards more positive emotions in marriage in older age is indicative of growing acceptance over time that disagreements are just an inevitable part of living together, and this doesn’t just benefit the couple, but also the wider family.
“Strong relationships in older age have benefits for physical health, emotional health, and even mortality. Strong relationships also have benefits for children and probably for grandchildren as well. An important theory in this domain is Socioemotional Selectivity Theory, which posits that as our horizons and end-of-life becomes more salient, we tend to focus more on the quality and strength of relationships that we have in our lives, hence supporting the idea that relationships play a crucial role in our overall well-being in older age,” Verstaen said.
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.