Year of Youth 2018

For Most Couples who Stick Together, Marriage Gets Better with Time

Last edited 2nd May 2018

For Most Couples who Stick Together, Marriage Gets Better with Time

When most of us said “I do,” we probably imagined growing old together in a blissful union that would only improve with every passing year. Maybe we saw ourselves in 40 years, rocking together on the front porch, smiling as our grandkids or great-grandkids play on the front lawn. But that vision of happily-ever-after can begin to get cloudy five to 10 years into a marriage, as the responsibilities of work and family life begin to press in upon us, and quality time together naturally declines. Add to that a good number of our married friends who begin to divorce around this time, and a culture that mostly portrays long-term married couples as bickering foes rather than faithful lovers, and marital bliss is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when we imagine being together for a lifetime.

Most previous research appears to back up the common assumption that marriage generally declines in quality over time. However, a fascinating new study led by sociologist Paul Amato challenges the myth that couples who stay married are destined for an unhappy—or at least boring—union in their golden years.

The study, “Changes in Spousal Relationships Over the Marital Life Course,” is unique in that is the first to compare the relationship trajectories of spouses who stayed married to the those who eventually divorced, and it’s one of a few to follow couples for decades, which means it included a substantial number of couples in long-term marriages. Dr. Amato and his co-author Spencer James of Brigham Young University used six waves of data from the 20-year Marital Instability Over the Life Course Study to measure how three common characteristics of marital quality (happiness, shared activities, and discord) changed over time for couples in the study who stayed married and for those who divorced.

They found that marital quality actually improves over the years for couples who don’t split up. Specifically, although marital happiness declined slightly in the early years of marriage, it improved after about 20 years for most longtime married couples, while discord improved continuously over time. Shared activities—like recreation, eating dinner, or visiting friends together—also improved after about 20 years, despite a drop in the early years. The authors note that "about half of all marriages last a lifetime, and the long-term outlook for most of these marriages is upbeat, with happiness and interaction remaining high and discord declining."

I had the opportunity to discuss some of the study's findings with Paul Amato, who is the Arnold and Bette Hoffman Emeritus Professor of Family Sociology and Demography at Pennsylvania State University. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Read the interview on Mercartornet by visiting the article below.

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