Bring on the humour: Marriage is like a good wine
Over time, positive behaviours replace the negative ones that plagued the early years, a study has found
We finally have scientific proof that when someone says “those two are behaving like an old married couple”, it really is a positive thing.
An extensive study at the University of California, Berkeley found that couples who had stuck out the early and middle years of marriage, finally settled into a new phase – one marked by humour, tenderness and acceptance. These replaced the negative behaviours such as criticism and defensiveness that plagued the marriages in the early years.
The sample for the study was 87 different couples. Conversations between them were videotaped over 13 years and then analysed in terms of their emotional interactions.
The senior author on the study, Robert Levenson, said: “Our findings [just published in Emotion] shed light on one of the great paradoxes of late life. Despite 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.”
The research team also noticed gender-specific behaviour, saying that wives were “more emotionally expressive” than their male counterparts and as they grew older became less affectionate and more domineering.
“But generally,” said the researchers, “across all the study's age and gender cohorts, negative behaviours decreased with age.”
They said the findings point to the importance of “intimate relationships as people age” as well as the “potential health benefits associated with marriage”.
The study brings to mind some extreme portrayals of marriage as a negative experience in popular culture, particularly through the medium of film. Two of the most memorable portrayals of marriage in this negative light are The War of the Roses and Revolutionary Road.
The former was a dark comedy made in 1989, and starred Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas as the embittered Roses who, after 18 years of a seemingly great marriage, decide to part ways but become entangled in an ugly conflict over who gets the house. The film tracks the degeneration of their relationship, until the nastiness gets to the point where Mrs Rose pretends the paté she has just served her husband was made from his deceased pet dog, while he in turn boards up the house to prevent her from escaping from his wrath. Although its comedic elements were deliberate, the film raised many debates about the perils of marriage when it first hit the big screen.
Revolutionary Road came out 10 years later, and starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler. With the 1950s as the backdrop, the film drew in heartbreaking detail the gender-based tension between its two main characters: Frank sticks with a job he detests to pay off their house in the suburbs of Connecticut, while April feels lonely, unstimulated and worthless in the role of housewife. Unlike The War of the Roses, which goes over the top, this film was touted at the time as a conversation starter among the millions of couples worldwide who went to see it.
Maybe with the new research on the table, a more gentle sequel is in order.