In this culture of throw-away everything, many young people are shocked to meet a couple who has been married for more than 20 years. They often claim to have never met someone who has been married that long. Then they ask, “How did you do that, and why?”
What helps couples experience long-term marriage?
Lead researcher Dr. Robert Levenson at the University of California, Berkeley, along with Drs. John Gottman and Laura Carstensen, launched a longitudinal study of 156 middle-aged and older couples to gain a better understanding of the emotional quality of long-term marriages. Every five years, the couples came to the Berkeley campus to talk about their marriage. They specifically focused on areas of conflict in their relationship.
Twenty-five years later, Levenson believes the research shows some significant findings.
- The first 15 years of marriage can be challenging. But, the next stage of marriage gets better. Couples stop trying to do extreme makeovers on each other. They take pride in each other’s accomplishments. And, they learn to value and genuinely respect each other.
- Many couples believe the absence of conflict is a positive thing for marriage. However, the research showed the best indicator of enjoying a long marriage isn’t the absence of conflict, but the way couples handle it.
- Believe it or not, the wife’s ability to calm down quickly after an intense argument positively impacted the long-term happiness of the couple. Interestingly, the husband calming down quickly did not have the same impact. The research revealed that couples who say “we” stand a greater chance of resolving conflict.
In case you're wondering about the major sources of conflict in marriage, the research demonstrated that communication or lack thereof often is the culprit. Husbands believe their wives don’t think they can do anything right and wives often feel emotionally alone. The other big bone of contention is children.
Couples typically spend a lot of time taking childbirth classes and preparing the nursery. But, they usually spend little time preparing their marriage for parenthood. Issues arise concerning how to raise the child, division of the home workload and the husband feeling neglected.
Here's another interesting find: Some portion of happy marriage has to do with our DNA.
A gene that helps to regulate serotonin can predict how much our emotions affect our relationships. All humans inherit a copy of this gene variant. Some have a long version and others have a short version. Those with the short variant were more prone to unhappiness in marriage when negativity was present and happier when more positive emotions were present. Conversely, marital satisfaction of those with the long variant was less impacted by the emotional state of their marriage.
The findings of this study give great information for couples. It's useful whether you're preparing for marriage, already in the midst of the first 15 or leaping into the second half of marriage. Even though people can’t change their DNA, everyone can learn communication and conflict management skills. With that said, the key to building a healthy long-term marriage is committing to be a lifelong learner.