The Amazing New Science Behind a Long Term Relationship

The Longer You Hang in There…the Better it Gets

New research on long term relationships from the University of California, Berkeley, underscores what couples therapists have known for some time.

Long term relationships that are characterized by high levels of marital satisfaction get even more satisfying over time.

Even healthy marriages have their bad days. Defensiveness and criticism are predictable aspects of marital conflict.

But new research shows that as we move through time in long term relationships, we tend to smooth out our rough edges…bickering is replaced by humor.

If we’ve kept our emotional bank accounts in the black, we tend to show more humor and affection toward our spouses in later years.

In other words, long term relationships not only get more comfortable over time, they typically get better as well.

It’s also important to note that aging couples who have consistently overdrawn their emotional bank accounts have the opposite experience. A bad long term marriage can take a heavy toll on your health.

There is an ironic parallel between the developmental struggles of new parents and aging partners.

Both the stress of new parenthood, as well as the stress of aging tend to reveal the inherent underlying strengths or deficits in a marriage.

In later life, a good marriage is highly protective of your mental and physical health. But a bad marriage characterized by bickering and nagging will have the opposite effect. The older we get, the more the quality of our long term relationship impacts our overall quality of life.

And social media, or a good book on your night stand is a poor substitute for a distant and emotionally disconnected marriage.

How the Study Was Conducted

The researchers at UC Berkeley analyzed the videotaped conversations between almost 90 middle-aged couples married for between 15 to 35 years.

This was a longitudinal study which continued to study their conversational dynamics over the ensuing 13 years.

They found that as the study subjects moved through time, they showed more mutual tenderness and goodwill.

The research findings published 6 months ago in the journal Emotion, indicated a measurable increase in such positive behaviors as humor and affection, and a decrease in the most common of the four horsemen; defensiveness

and criticism.

This is a critical study because until recently, the prevailing “common sense” theory was that our emotions tend to flatten as we age. We now know that isn’t what happens. If you have a reasonably happy functional long-term relationship, it will get even easier to maintain those good feelings over time.

This research also suggests that science-based couples therapy in middle age is a good idea. It’s a cost-effective way to enhance cognitive and physical health in old age.

Long Term Relationships and Mental Health

“Our findings shed light on one of the great paradoxes of late life. Despite experiencing the loss of friends and family, older people in stable marriages are relatively happy and experience low rates of depression and anxiety. Marriage has been good for their mental health.” Senior Research Director Robert Levenson, UC Berkeley.

Another interesting finding was that wives tended to be more controlling in old age, but remain more emotionally expressive than their husbands, who still kept faith with the “Guy Code” even in old age.

Sometimes this managerial stance resulted in wives modulating their affection (perhaps due to a change in estrogen/androgen levels?). But despite that finding, across all the study’s age and gender cohorts, all negative behaviors decreased with age.

“Given the links between positive emotion and health, these findings underscore the importance of intimate relationships as people age and the potential health benefits associated with marriage,” said co-lead author Alice Verstaen, who conducted the study as a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System.

Other Studies on Long Term Relationships and Aging

This study is only the most recent to emerge from the UC Berkeley research team.

Another larger longitudinal study, also headed by Levenson, examined over 150 long-term marriages.

These heterosexual couples, now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, are from the Bay Area of San Francisco. Levenson’s research team began tracking them 30 years ago in 1989.

In this study of long term relationships, researchers viewed 15-minute interactions between partners in a laboratory setting as they discussed what Gottman calls “perpetual problems.”

The researchers tracked the emotional shifts that occurred over time.

The researchers used facial coding techniques similar to those used by Dr. John Gottman in his original ground-breaking research. The couple’s conversations were coded and rated according to their facial expressions, body language, verbal content, and tone of voice.

The researchers categorized emotional interactions. They recorded incidents of  anger, contempt, controlling behavior, defensiveness, fear, tension, sadness, affection, playfulness, and empathy.

The results were pretty amazing. Over time, as we age, research shows that we tend to focus more on the positive aspects of our partner.

Long Term Relationships Get Richer and More Meaningful Over Time

The UC Berkeley Researchers found that the middle-aged and older couples they studied experienced measurable increases in overall positive emotional behaviors with age, while simultaneously experiencing a drop in negative emotion.

This research is significant. It tells us that if we can acquire the skills to manage intense conflict from “perpetual problems” earlier in married life, our long term relationship will pay dividends in our later years.

The more connected we are as partners as we move through time from middle age to old age, the more relaxed and more gracious our golden years will be.

Research

Age-related changes in emotional behavior: Evidence from a 13-year longitudinal study of long-term married couples. Verstaen, Alice, Haase, Claudia M., Lwi, Sandy J., Levenson, Robert W. Emotion, Nov 29, 2018, No Pagination Specified.

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About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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