I’ve been married to my wonderful wife for 14 years, and I will admit that not all of those years have been stellar. There were the years when we fought over everything from the laundry to where the pots and pans should be stored. When we had our first son, I thought for sure we’d get divorced because the sleep and work and crying got the best of us. We actually separated for a short time during our son’s first year.
But I will admit, things have gotten better with each year. In fact, right now, I feel like we are in a good place. We still fight sometimes, but we make up quickly and understand each other on a level I’ve never experienced with anyone else.
Except, according to science, I’m not even halfway to the real sweet spot of marriage.
University of California-Berkeley has been conducting a 25-year study of more than 150 long-term marriages. Author Robert Levenson, a UC-Berkeley psychology professor and his team followed 87 couples, mostly middle-aged or older, who had been married between 15 and 35 years. The authors monitored the couples for 13 years, interviewing them every few years on video and having them discuss experiences and conflicts since they last met. The participants are now mostly in their 70s, 80s and 90s. All were heterosexual and from the San Francisco Bay Area.
What they found was that both middle-aged and older couples, regardless of their satisfaction with their relationship, experienced increases in overall positive emotional behaviors with age, while experiencing a decrease in overall negative emotional behaviors. And here’s the kicker, those married longer than 35 years showed the most tenderness. I don’t want to state the obvious, but that’s a really long time.
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 said this: “…as we age, we become more focused on the positives in our lives.”
Now, I’ve met some pretty pissed off people in their 70s and 80s, most of them while I was working in retail, so I was tempted to call BS on the study’s findings. So I thought and thought, and I tried to think of anyone I knew well who’d been married for at least 35 years, and let me tell you, it was like trying to find a golden goose.
My mother’s on her third marriage. My dad died divorcing his fourth wife. My siblings just haven’t been around long enough, and 90% of the couples who got married around the same time as me are divorced. I’m 36 and it feels like I’m in the season of divorce. I have to assume many of you feel the same way.
My mother and stepdad appear to care about each other, but they also live a lot like roommates, spending time alone in other rooms most of the day, each one with their own priorities and incomes.
The only couple I know well who has been married more than 35 years is my in-laws. They are rocking 40 years. And I must say, as I’ve gotten to know them over the past 15 or so years, I can’t help but notice that just in the past five years or so (since retirement) they have begun to really admire each other, and I’ve started to admire them. They don’t argue like they used to. They don’t talk about each other critically anymore when the other isn’t in the room. They just joke around now. They laugh a lot more, and when I’m around them, I get this feeling like they are past all that petty garbage that seems to consume so much of young marriage. They appear to be in this stage where they just kind of love and respect each other. They’ve forgiven each other for whatever might have happened in the past, and they have had enough time to put it all into prospective.
And it only took 35 years!
I know, I know. It feels like I’ll be lucky to live long enough to enjoy a really happy marriage. However, the study did find this: If you do make it to the 35-year sweet spot, this study found that both you and your spouse will experience lower anxiety and depression, which resulted in increased health. So that’s a plus… assuming your health doesn’t crap out during those first few decades of trying not to lose it over who left their socks next to the hamper and loaded the dishwasher wrong.
So what do the researchers have to say about how to stay together longer? Well, they don’t give a lot of tips outside of suggesting that if you work through the rough times, you will benefit in the long term. Except, of course, in the case of physical or emotional abuse. Those are deal breakers. Seriously.
But working through some of the petty frustrations that can ultimately weigh down a couple to the breaking point can be worth it in the long run. So hold strong, friends. Sure, the snoring and inability to hit the laundry basket is maddening now, but in a few decades you might just find it all forgivable, and dare I say, even charming.