Articles for Married Couples

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    Does Marriage Get Better Over Time?

    Does marriage, like a good bottle of wine, really get better over time? That’s the question Dr. Paul Amato and his co-author, Spencer James, set out to answer. Amato serves as the Arnold and Bette Hoffman Emeritus Professor of Family Sociology and Demography at Pennsylvania State University. 

    There’s lots of evidence that many people are cynical about marriage these days. In fact, many are choosing not to marry because they have seen so many marriages end in bitter divorces and they figure, “What’s the point of putting yourself through that?”

    What if there is something we are missing from the bigger picture? Most would agree that anything worth having usually takes work, grit and a long-term view. So, are people throwing away perfectly good marriages in the earlier years because the going gets tough?

    In a recent conversation with Alysse ElHage, Dr. Amato shared the findings from his research, Changes in Spousal Relationships Over the Marital Life Course.

    Amato’s study was based on a unique 20-year longitudinal sample of 1,617 spouses. The study ran from 1980 to 2000. While not recent, it is the longest-running, most-detailed study of marriage available. According to Amato, there is no reason to assume that trajectories of relationship quality are different today than they were in the 1980s and 1990s.

    In reviewing the data, Amato measured how three common characteristics of marital quality (happiness, shared activities and discord) changed over time. He split the sample in several ways, but the most important one separated the divorced couples from those who remained together. Amato believes this is key, because past studies have led many researchers to conclude that marital quality inevitably deteriorates over time. If you focus on couples who remain together however, which is the majority, then average levels of marital quality do not decline. In reality, marital happiness remains moderately high and marital discord lessens substantially. 

    While plenty of studies have focused on the first five years of marriage, little research exists on couples who have been married for decades. Amato was very interested in focusing on the 205 long-term marriages in the study. It turns out that most of the couples who had been married 40 years or more are happy. 

    One of the biggest takeaways from Amato’s study is that for some deeply-troubled marriages, divorce is the best outcome. But based on previous work, he found that many divorces are not preceded by a serious relationship problem. Sometimes boredom, rather than misery, characterizes many unstable marriages. In these cases, infidelity is often the trigger that leads one partner to leave the union. When couples stick together through difficult times, remain faithful to one another and actively work to resolve problems, positive long-term outcomes are common. 

    Amato’s research shows that positive outcomes for couples in long-term marriages are the norm. And contrary to what many people think, marital quality is not destined to decline. It tends to remain high or even improve over the decades, which should encourage most couples.

    The big question is, how did these couples help their marriages endure over time? Although Amato’s study didn’t measure for relationship education, previous research indicates that couples who use relationship education services tend to have better relationship quality and more stable marriages than do other couples. 

    “What we can say from our study is that being happy, frequently sharing activities with your spouse, and having a peaceful marriage after 20, 30, or 40 years is quite common,” says Amato.

    For couples who find themselves in a lackluster marriage, wondering if it’s worth it to stick around, Amato’s research is good news. It shows that although rough spots happen in relationships, there is hope that in many instances, nurturing a marriage can help things get better as the years go by.

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    Characteristics of Heart Healthy Relationships

    There's a lot of talk about how to keep our hearts healthy. Eat right, exercise, take one aspirin a day, eat foods low in cholesterol, get plenty of rest, and the list goes on. Just as we have information to help us keep our heart healthy, we can also do certain things to keep relationships “heart healthy.”

    Today, people are so busy with work, children, extracurricular activities and who knows what else. As a result of such a busy lifestyle, family relationships can suffer.

    In order to build healthy relationships, you must be intentional and committed.

    Heart healthy relationships have certain characteristics, including:

    • Humor – Appropriate humor can help defuse a potentially volatile situation. People say that laughter is good for the soul, but guess what? It's also good for relationships!

    • Appropriate Expectations – Many people have unrealistic expectations of their mate and their children. Pushing children to excel, stressful jobs, competitive sports and life in general are part of the problem. Learn to keep things in perspective and ask, "What is important in the long run?" The answer can help shed light on what really matters in life. Most would agree that the relationship between child, parent or spouse is much more important than straight A's or a spotless house.

    • Appreciation – Sometimes people are so busy “doing” life that they fail to appreciate the people they care about the most. When is the last time you sent a card to a friend for no reason? Or told your spouse you how much you appreciate all he/she does for your marriage and family - without adding, “I only wish…”? Have you ever let your child know you are honored to be their parent?

    • Respect - Experts suggest that you never second-guess your spouse in front of the children or anyone else. If you want your children to learn how to treat others with respect, model it for them. That means talking to each other appropriately and not talking badly about your spouse to a third party. Try asking, “Does what I am about to do or say build up this person or tear them down?”

    • Spending time wisely – How do you spend it? If you knew you didn’t have much time left, would you start spending your time differently? If the answer to that question is yes, now may be a good time for you to examine your priorities. Heart healthy relationships happen when people spend time together connecting on a consistent basis.

    A line in a Garth Brooks song says, “If tomorrow never comes, will she know how much I loved her?” Do the people in your life know how much you care? Do your children know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you love them – not the grades they bring home?

    If your relationships are not where you want them to be, you can still do something different.

    Having heart healthy relationships is about loving the people in your world - your mate, elderly neighbor, your children, parents, etc. Be intentional. Try practicing one characteristic from the list above today. When you put your head down on the pillow, your heart will probably feel better because you did.