Baumgardner: For a better marriage, be a lifelong learner

Baumgardner: For a better marriage, be a lifelong learner

March 16th, 2014 By Julie Baumgardner in Life Entertainment

In this culture of throw away everything, many young people are shocked when they meet a couple who has been married for 20-plus years. They often share that they have never met someone who has been married that long, and then they ask: How did you do that and why.

Great question. What is it that 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 UC Berkeley campus to talk about their marriage. Conversations specifically focused on areas of conflict in their relationship.

Twenty-five years later, Levenson believes the research has revealed some significant findings. The first 15 years of marriage can be challenging. The good news? 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.

Additionally, while many couples believe the absence of conflict is a positive thing in their marriage, the research showed the best indicator of couples being able to enjoy 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 impacted the long-term happiness of the couple in a positive way. Interestingly, the husband calming down quickly did not have the same impact. The research did reveal that couples who say "we" stand a greater chance of resolving conflict.

In case you are wondering about the major source of conflict in marriage, the research revealed 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 little time preparing their marriage for the impact of a child. Issues arise concerning how to raise the child, division of the workload around the house and the husband feeling neglected.

Another interesting finding is that some portion of being blissfully wed has to do with our DNA. A gene that helps in the regulation of 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 one. Those with the short variant were more prone to unhappiness in their marriage when negativity is present in the relationship 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, whether you are preparing for marriage, already in the midst of the first 15 years or have made the leap into the second half. Even though people can't change their DNA, everybody can learn skills to help them communicate and manage conflict more effectively. So the key to building a healthy long-term marriage is committing to be a lifelong learner.

Julie Baumgardner is the president and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at julieb@firstthings.org.