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.
Alysse ElHage: Your study differed from previous marital quality studies in terms of the couples you looked at and specifically how you grouped them. Why was this difference important in terms of your approach to the study and your findings?
Paul Amato: Our study was based on a unique 20-year longitudinal sample of 1,617 spouses. The study ran from 1980 to 2000, so the data are not recent. But this is the longest running, detailed study of marriage that we have. And there is no reason to assume that trajectories of relationship quality are different today than they were in the 1980s and 1990s.
We split the sample in several ways, but the most important split involved separating couples that eventually divorced from those that remained together. If you pool everyone (which previous studies have done), average levels of marital quality decline over time. This is because couples headed for divorce become increasingly distressed, and this affects the overall average. Findings like this have led many researchers to conclude that marital quality inevitably deteriorates over time. But if you focus on couples that remain together, which is the majority, then average levels of marital quality do not decline. Instead, marital happiness remains moderately high, on average, and marital discord lessens substantially.
Alysse ElHage: One of the interesting parts of this study, to me at least, is that your sample included 205 couples who’d been married 40 years or more by the end of the study interviews. How valuable were these longtime married couples to the findings?
Paul Amato: Couples in long-term marriages were essential to our study. Most longitudinal studies of marital quality have focused on the early period—usually the first five years. We know a lot less about what spouses experience after 20, 30, or 40 years of marriage. As it turns out, most of them are pretty happy!
Alysse ElHage: You mentioned that the first five years were the focus of previous studies. I remember being told when I was a newlywed that “the first few years are the hardest. If you can just get through these early years, you have a better chance of making it.” Is it true that the first few years are critical, and is that maybe why previous studies tended to focus on the earlier years of marriage?
Paul Amato: It's a good question. The earliest years of marriage have the highest probability of divorce, at least after the first year or so. Not many people divorce during the first year of marriage. After that, however, the probability of divorce rises quickly. The longer people stay married, the more the probability of divorce declines. But recent years have shown an increase in divorce in longer-term marriages, so the risk never goes away.
The reason most prior studies have focused on the first five years is partly because these are particularly critical and interesting years, but also for pragmatic reasons. Conducting longitudinal research is difficult and expensive. The longer you follow couples, the more your costs mount and the more likely you are to lose couples through attrition—you have to work hard to track them (people move a lot) and keep them motivated to participate. There are not many studies that follow people for as long as 20 years.
When couples stick together through difficult times, remain faithful to one another, and actively work to resolve problems, positive long-term outcomes (while not guaranteed) are common.
Alysse ElHage: We know from a number of recent studies that college-educated Americans are more likely to marry, have kids within marriage, and stay married than less educated Americans. Yet in your study, you found no differences in terms of marital quality between college educated and non-college educated couples. Explain this finding for us—why no difference?
It is true that college-educated couples have more stable marriages than do couples with less education (at least in the U.S. and most western countries). But previous research, including our own, shows only minor differences in marital happiness between these groups. The stability finding may reflect a tendency for college-educated couples to stay together despite marital tension. Perhaps college-educated couples have more economic flexibility and social support—resources that help them to weather periods of unhappiness. To be honest, I don't think anyone has provided a definitive answer to your question.
Alysse ElHage: What you did not measure in this study is whether the couples who stayed together took steps to strengthen their bond, such as getting marital counseling or just making an effort to work at things. In other words, we don’t really know why things improved in their marriages, other than that they stayed together. Is this something that would be valuable to measure in the future, and is it possible from this sample?
Paul Amato: Previous survey research has shown that spouses that use relationship education services have better relationship quality and more stable marriages than do other couples. The recent federal evaluation studies didn’t show much of an impact of these services on low-income couples, however, so we are still trying to understand how this works. It may be that couples with a strong commitment to stay together are especially receptive to relationship education. Or it may be that relationship education is most useful for couples with the greatest needs. I wish we had asked about this in our research, but relationship education was less prevalent in the 1980s when we planned the study.
Alysse ElHage: There is sort of this idea in our society that if you stay in maybe a boring or unhappy marriage, your spouse is unlikely to change, and you will very likely end up unhappy in your old age. And yet, when you spend time with couples who've been married a long time, often they seem to be content with their choice to stay together, and in many cases are even happier for it. This sort of anecdotal evidence seems to be verified by your study.
Paul Amato: Our study (like most studies) is based on averages, so we need to recognize that there are a wide range of outcomes for spouses in long-term marriages. Some couples stay in marriages that aren’t particularly good, and things never get much better. Other couples find that troubled marriages improve over time. 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.
Alysse ElHage: What would you say is the best takeaway from this study in terms of the benefits to staying the course of a marriage that may be rocky right now but looking to the future?
Paul Amato: Some marriages are deeply troubled, and divorce is the best outcome in these cases. We know from previous work, however, that many divorces are NOT preceded by serious relationship problems. Boredom, rather than misery, characterizes many unstable marriages. In these cases, infidelity is often the trigger that leads one partner to leave the union. In contrast, when couples stick together through difficult times, remain faithful to one another, and actively work to resolve problems, positive long-term outcomes (while not guaranteed) are common.
Our research shows that positive outcomes for couples in long-term marriages are the norm. Contrary to what many people think, marital quality does not inevitably decline—it tends to remain high or even improve over the decades. This knowledge should encourage most couples to look to the future with a degree of optimism.