Your marriage is likely to improve (after the kids leave)

| 03 December 2008

So much for the empty-nest blues. A study that tracked the relationships of dozens of middle-aged women has found further evidence that marriages improve once the kids have flown the coop.

The study, conducted by Berkeley's Institute of Personality and Social Research, followed the marital ups and downs of some 100 women — through early marriage, child-rearing, and, in many cases, divorces, remarriages, and domestic partnerships.

Researchers gauged participants' levels of satisfaction with their marriages and their lives in general at ages 43, when most had children at home; 52, when children were starting to leave home; and 61, when virtually all of the women had empty nests. Overall, the study found, participants' marriages improved because of the quality of time they spent with their spouses after their children left home.

"The take-home message for couples with young children is, 'Hang in there,' " says Sara Gorchoff, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology who spearheaded the study, which was published in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science.

While the women reported feeling happier in their marriages once their children left home, they did not note an increase in their general sense of life fulfillment, suggesting that post-empty-nest improvements are specific to marital relationships.

One study participant explained it this way: "Twenty years ago, we were in the battle of the children. Today we can enjoy one another for who we are." Another said, "Once the kids grow up… there's some of that stress removed… that responsibility removed, so things are a little more relaxed."

The participants, all born in the late 1930s, were first studied by Berkeley adjunct professor emerita Ravenna Helson in 1958, when they were seniors at Mills College in Oakland. While college-educated, the women in the sample reflect a wide range of professions, incomes, and schedules for starting families. They also represent trends typical of their generation, in that 84 percent had married before age 25, and 30 percent had divorced by age 45. In some cases the increased marital satisfaction was due to finding more compatible partners after divorcing.

Another take-home message: "Don't wait until your kids leave home to schedule quality time with your partner," says Berkeley psychology professor Oliver John, a co-author of the paper.

Next, Gorchoff and John plan to study marital satisfaction in a sample of men and women of different ethnic, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds.