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Happiness increases after 20 years of marriage, study finds

When couples manage to stay together, marital happiness is surprisingly stable over time, a new study has found
by A. Pawlowski / / Source: TODAY
Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson walk a red carpet on October 13, 2016 in Rome, Italy.
Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have been married since 1988.Getty Images

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For many couples saying “I do” this wedding season, the best may be yet to come.

Movies and books often portray spouses who’ve been married for a long time as unhappy, unfulfilled, bored or indifferent, but that’s not quite true, researchers said.

Over time, couples in stable marriages — those who didn’t end up divorcing — showed a very modest decline in happiness after about five or 10 years together, with their contentment rising again around the 20th-anniversary mark, a recent study published in Social Networks and the Life Course found.

It means those spouses went from being very happy to pretty happy, and then back to very happy again, said lead author Paul Amato, an emeritus professor of family sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University. After decades of marriage, they spent more quality time together and fought much less.

“If you have a sound relationship, a good partner, and you really love that person, it’s going to get better — it’s not going to get worse or deteriorate,” Amato told TODAY. “It’s much better the longer you’re married.”

Tamara Green, a New York couples therapist, sees evidence of the findings in her own life.

"I'm married almost 24 years and the longer I'm married, the happier I am — not only within my marriage and my husband, but also within myself," she said. "I find with longer marriages, you have more and more of these deepening levels of conversation."

When couples in these marriages have a disagreement, it actually brings them closer together because they gain a level of understanding about each other they didn't have before, she said.

'An unnecessarily negative picture'

For the paper, Amato and his co-author analyzed data from 1,617 married people who took part in the Marital Instability Over the Life Course study. The men and women were tracked for 20 years, revealing their happiness levels, how much time they spent together with their spouses and how much conflict they experienced in their marriages.

Unlike much of the previous research into marital happiness, Amato separated the respondents into two groups: those who stayed married and those who were headed for divorce. It was important to do that because the spouses who would ultimately split reported a very sharp decline in happiness, dragging down the average, Amato said.

“That’s why you get the idea that the longer couples are married, the less happy they get,” he noted about other studies. “That’s an unnecessarily negative picture.”

When he focused on couples who did manage to stay together, he found:

Marital happiness was surprisingly stable over time. It declined slightly in the first years — as problems emerged and the partners adjusted to each other — and then rose again after about 20 years of marriage.

There was a bit of a gender difference. Women remained pretty happy throughout their marriages, while men showed a dip in happiness before rebounding. Men, who tend to have fewer close friends than women, have actually more invested in their marriages than women do and get a health boost from the union, Amato noted. “They sort of need marriage more than women do,” he said.

Time spent together followed a U-shape. It bottomed out at around the 20-year mark — as kids, jobs and other obligations pulsed the spouses in different directions — then went back up again to a level as high if not higher than when they were newlyweds.

Conflict was highest in the first year or two of marriage, but declined dramatically over time. “Couples who are in really sound relationships get through that first couple of years when things might be a little tense. They wind up, after a few years, in very peaceful, easy-going, relaxed relationships where there’s very little conflict or tension,” Amato said.

Bottom line: Although divorce is common, a substantial number of people enjoy satisfying marriages for many decades and the long-term outlook for these unions is upbeat, the study noted.

Find a good match and you have a good chance to wind up in a “very good place” with your partner in the years to come, Amato said.

“You have good things to look forward to,” he noted. “Keep your eye on the long-term goal because that’s a lot more important than the temporary day-to-day inconveniences and hassles that come up in any relationship.”

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