Popular culture has it that marriage is the slow decay of a once blossoming relationship into one characterised, at best, by silence and indifference and, at worse, by resentment and blazing rows.
Couples like Basil and Sybil Fawlty and Boycie and Marlene in Only Fools and Horses dominate the public view of a decades-long marriages. In one episode of the 70s sitcom, Basil Fawlty replies to his wife’s accusation of appearing happy: “Oh, happy. Yes, I remember that. No, not that I noticed, dear. Well, I’ll report it if it happens, though.”
Now two academics from the US have blasted this theory in a paper that reveals that in fact the majority of marriages only get better over time.
The paper shows that it is true in marriages that end in divorce, unsurprisingly the quality of the relationship deteriorates over time, but for those that don’t, the frequency of arguments and bickering actually drops, while happiness levels stay high.
Paul R. Amato from Pennsylvania State University and James Spencer from Brigham Young University looked at data collected from 1,617 married individuals between the ages of 18 and 55.
They looked at three key relationship factors: happiness, the level of discord and how often couples did activities together, such as eat together, visit friends or go shopping.
For married couples who stay together – that is to say the majority of all couples that marry – happiness starts high and remains high. The number of shared activities decline over the first twenty years of marriage but pick up again after that and discord, characterised primarily by arguments, continues to fall year on year.
Commenting on the American study, Harry Benson, research director of the think tank Marriage Foundation, said:
“All of us have seen couples sitting in stony silence in restaurants, resigned to what looks like a dry and lifeless marriage. It’s a depressing and misleading stereotype that sitcoms like to portray. And until now researchers have generally agreed that marriages start well but thereafter drift into terminal decline.
“Only it’s a complete myth.
“By separating the marriages that last from those that don’t, this new study better reflects the reality that – so long as couples stay together – marriages tend to get better with time.
“Far from becoming increasingly disillusioned or stuck in a rut, this study shows that the average married couple adapts well to each other’s changing personality, tastes and circumstances. Most marriages start happy and stay that way, arguing less as time goes on, and doing more together once the children have grown up.
“The leisure industry knows this. Most older married couples know this. Just maybe it doesn’t make for such good sitcoms.”
Sir Paul Coleridge, the former High Court judge who left his post to set up Marriage Foundation to promote stable families, commented:
“The mood music around marriage and divorce is constantly negative and reinforced by media stereotypes. Marriages are portrayed as a miserable life sentence and don’t last. It is endlessly said that divorce is on the increase because we all live longer.”
“In fact so often, as Marriage Foundation has found, when these myths are subjected to proper research the true position reveals another story entirely. This latest American research is a classic case.
“Marriages, like wine, do not decline in satisfaction but more often than not improve over the longer term. Speak to any married pensioner who is in their fourth, fifth or sixth decade together. They exhibit a deep contentment and understanding of one another, are welded together and fear only separation by death.
“Similarly, the myth that longer lives are leading to more divorces is just as false; the longer you are together the less likely you are to get divorced. The divorce rate after thirty years of marriage is under two per cent.
“And never let it be forgotten that divorce stats have declined amongst the young for eight consecutive years. If you marry today you will probably stay that way for the rest of your life.
“Again research shows over and over that everyone wants a stable and satisfying monogamous life long relationship. And as we see, this is not a mere pipe dream but the reality for the marrying majority.”
Notes to editors
Details of the study are available here: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-71544-5_7
For media inquiries please contact Beatrice Timpson on 07803 726977.
For interviews, please contact Harry Benson on 07515 699187.
About Marriage Foundation
Marriage Foundation was founded by Sir Paul Coleridge, a High Court judge, who was moved by his personal experience in 40 years as a barrister and judge specialising in family law. The think tank seeks to improve public understanding of marriage and to reduce the numbers of people drawn into the family justice system – some 500,000 children and adults each year.
Marriage Foundation has highlighted the crisis of family breakdown. Their research has found that a child born today only has a 50 per cent chance of living with both parents by the time they reach fifteen.
Foundation research has also found that 93 percent of parents who stay together until their child’s fifteenth birthday are married.
A source of statistics on marriage, cohabitation, commitment, divorce and family breakdown can be found on the Marriage Foundation website: http://marriagefound.wpengine.com/