Does marriage, like a good bottle of wine, really get better over time? That's the question Dr. Paul Amato and his co-author, Spencer James of Brigham Young University, set out to answer. Amato serves as the Arnold and Bette Hoffman Emeritus Professor of Family Sociology and Demography at Pennsylvania State University.
There's lots of evidence that many people are cynical about marriage these days. In fact, many are choosing not to marry because they have seen so many marriages end in bitter divorces. They figure, "What's the point of putting yourself through that?"
What if there is something we are missing from the bigger picture? Most would agree that anything worth having usually takes work, grit and a long-term view. So are people throwing away perfectly good marriages in the earlier years because the going gets tough?
In a recent conversation with Alysse ElHage, Dr. Amato shared the findings from his research, "Changes in Spousal Relationships Over the Marital Life Course."
Amato's study was based on a unique 20-year longitudinal sample of 1,617 spouses. The study ran from 1980 to 2000. While not recent, it is the longest-running, most-detailed study of marriage available. According to Amato, there is no reason to assume that trajectories of relationship quality are different today than they were in the 1980s and 1990s.
In reviewing the data, Amato measured how three common characteristics of marital quality (happiness, shared activities and discord) changed over time. He split the sample in several ways, but the most important one separated the divorced couples from those who remained together. Amato believes this is key, because past studies have led many researchers to conclude that marital quality inevitably deteriorates over time. If you focus on couples who remain together however, which is the majority, then average levels of marital quality do not decline. In reality, marital happiness remains moderately high and marital discord lessens substantially.
While plenty of studies have focused on the first five years of marriage, little research exists on couples who have been married for decades. Amato was very interested in focusing on the 205 long-term marriages in the study. It turns out that most of the couples who had been married 40 years or more are happy.
One of the biggest takeaways from Amato's study is that for some deeply troubled marriages, divorce is the best outcome. But based on previous work, he found that many divorces are not preceded by a serious relationship problem. Sometimes boredom, rather than misery, characterizes many unstable marriages. In these cases, infidelity is often the trigger that leads one partner to leave the union. When couples stick together through difficult times, remain faithful to one another and actively work to resolve problems, positive long-term outcomes are common.
Amato's research shows that positive outcomes for couples in long-term marriages are the norm. And contrary to what many people think, marital quality is not destined to decline. It tends to remain high or even improve over the decades, which should encourage most couples.
The big question is, how did these couples help their marriages endure over time? Although Amato's study didn't measure for relationship education, previous research indicates that couples who use relationship education services tend to have better relationship quality and more stable marriages than do other couples.
"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," says Amato.
For couples who find themselves in a lackluster marriage, wondering if it's worth it to stick around, Amato's research is good news. It shows that although rough spots happen in relationships, there is hope that in many instances, nurturing a marriage can help things get better as the years go by.
Julie Baumgardner is the president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.