Happiness doesn’t change much in long marriages. But something else does

Every marriage is many marriages.
Every marriage is many marriages.
Image: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
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Every marriage is many marriages. A relationship feels different when experienced in different life stages, or when viewed through the eyes of one partner or another. But what does it look like as a whole? How do you chart the rise and fall of conflict, contentedness, and shared activities that make up a life together?

To answer that question, sociologists Paul Amato from Pennsylvania State University and Spencer James of Brigham Young University examined data from 1,617 participants in the Marital Instability over the Life Course survey, a longitudinal study of marriage in the US conducted from 1980 to 2000. All respondents were married at the start of the survey; by the end, about half of them still were, the rest having divorced (19%), become widowed (5%), or dropped out of the study.

In a chapter of the recently published textbook Social Networks and the Life Course, Amato and James pulled out respondents whose partnerships ended in divorce and charted them separately from those whose marriages endured. Rather than focusing simply on marital “happiness”—a fuzzy and nebulous concept—they also looked at both the couples’ reports of discord and the number of activities they shared together.

To gauge happiness, the researchers asked respondents to rate their satisfaction with things like their spouse’s supportiveness, the affection in the marriage, and their sex life. Much like other researchers, the team found that happiness declines in the first years of marriage, as the flush of newlywed life gives way to day-to-day frustrations and realities.

In couples headed for divorce, reported happiness declined continuously and precipitously until the marriage’s end. Couples that stayed together saw a moderate decrease in happiness through the first decades of their partnership as well, with a slight uptick around the 30-year mark.

But what was more striking about the overall collective data of married people was that while happiness really didn’t sway that much over time, the relationships still changed markedly.

Conflict, for instance, declined dramatically and continuously over the course of a life together. After a dip in the first decades when work and family obligations consume a couple’s time, the frequency of shared activities increased. By the fourth decade of marriage, couples reported spending as much time dining, socializing, and having fun together as they did when they were newlyweds.

Another interesting finding is how differently men and women view the same marriage, both in enduring and shorter-lived pairings. (All interviewees were in heterosexual marriages.)

Divorced women reported more unhappiness, fewer shared activities, and more conflict than their former husbands did. Women in long-term marriages reported less happiness and more conflict at the start of the marriage, though eventually their views of marital conflict converged with their spouse’s.

Happiness is subjective, but how can couples have competing accounts of how much time they spend together, or how many arguments they have? As it turns out, one of the few constant findings in marriage research is that spouses tend to view the same relationship quite differently. Married spouses often give researchers contrasting reports on virtually everything: how the chores are shared, how often they have sex, and even how much money they earn.

Every relationship has its own trajectory, and plenty of marriages that result either in divorce or in golden anniversary parties have ups and downs that don’t fit these patterns. But taken together, the data paints a picture of lasting marriage as a long process of letting go of conflict and learning how to be together.