Hang In There

If You Can Last 30 Years or So, Your Marriage May Improve

by Patricia McBroom

Couples in long-term marriages become happier as they age, growing in emotional competence and learning to express more affection, according to unusual observational studies on marriage carried out here.

Older couples learn to limit negative exchanges without losing any breadth of communication or emotional vitality, the research shows.

"You could say they have developed wisdom about how to make a marriage work. We have a lot to learn from them," said Robert W. Levenson, professor of psychology.

"If you are able to hang in there and stay together, at the end you have a very sweet situation. You have finally mastered the art of being a couple and not hurting each other so much," he said.

The research comparing older couples in their 60s with couples in their 40s has been carried out since 1989 on 156 couples that are representative of marriages in the Oakland and Berkeley area.Older couples were married for at least 35 years; the couples in their 40s for at least 15.

It is one of only a handful of studies ever done in which emotional communication between older couples has been studied in the laboratory.

The results form part of a series of papers by Levenson and co-authors psychologist Laura L. Carstensen of Stanford and psychologist John M. Gottman of the University of Washington.The latest paper is in the March issue of Psychology and Aging.

Before this research, people in the field had expected there would be a lessening of emotion with age, but that did not happen with these couples, said Levenson. There was no difference in the overall level of emotion between the middle-aged and older couples, but the 60-year-olds expressed fewer negative and more affectionate emotions.

Even during a conflict and even in the unhappier marriages, the older people would use affection to short-circuit escalation of negative statements, said Levenson.

They did that by inserting a positively affectionate comment into the dialogue at a critical moment.

"One positive moment can be very powerful" in curtailing an argument, said Levenson.

As a hypothetical example, Levenson recounted this common exchange between couples in the lab who are asked to talk about a communication problem they have:

"You make me crazy when you look off into space while I'm talking," says the wife. "I might do that," responds the husband, "but you don't give me an inch. Every time I try to say something, you come in there and cut me off. Pretty soon, I can't say anything, so I do drift off."

At this point, middle-aged couples begin another round of escalation, and the next comment by the wife is likely to be: "Well, you don't listen either!" But in older couples, the wife's response is more likely to be something like: "You might look off into space, but I know your heart's in the right place." That one affectionate comment diffuses the ticking time bomb, said Levenson.

Humor used by younger couples can be misconstrued and sarcastic humor almost always has a negative effect. The other method used by the middle-aged group to regulate negative exchanges was to withdraw from the conversation, shutting down communication. Men used this method more often, said Levenson.

Levenson believes that the ability of older couples to avoid angry escalations is due to a mix of life experience and biology.

"Evolution has provided humans with a protective system, so that when you are threatened, your field of focus narrows, your heart pounds and your other body systems become activated. Once that happens, you are very much locked into the emergency of the moment, and it is difficult to entertain the needs of other people," he said.

He said this evidence that older people actively control the negative and emphasize the positive in marriage is applicable to other environments, including the work setting.


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