Are the bride and groom doomed?

Sure, there's bliss in the beginning, but study finds there's no such thing as happily ever after

Family Matters

October 26, 2003|By Patrick Beach | Patrick Beach,Cox News Service

Married guys and gals, here's some cheery news to start your day: According to nationwide research, no matter how happy you are or aren't in your marriage, it probably will only get worse.

There you go! Have a great life!

The research, coordinated by University of Texas sociology department chair Debra Umberson, defies numerous studies that chart domestic bliss, such as it is, as a U-shape or bell curve. You start out young and deliriously happy and then jobs and kids start consuming you and then the kids ask for the car keys, followed by college tuition, and as the happy couple sees the nest empty and their job and financial situations improve, satisfaction climbs back up.

Not true, says Umberson, who's working with Daniel Powers, Meichu D. Chen and Sinikka Elliott at UT, Anna M. Campbell, a recent UT grad now at the University of Michigan, and Kristi Williams at Ohio State University. What really happens -- and she's sure this finding won't change when she publishes a book on the study in 2004 or 2005 -- is that couples start out happy and then it's nothing but a slow, inexorable slide down with no golden years on the back side. The good news, relatively speaking, is that everybody starts out at a different place. And if you're older, better off financially and male, you'll begin your marriage happier than if you're young, broke and female.

The research took a year and a half and involved interviewing 1,200 people across the United States. Researchers now are doing "pilot interviews" with married couples that will flesh out the data.

"We really want to know more about the narrative experiences, what people perceive as having been hard or what led to improvements," Umberson said. "And we're really interested in how men and women perceive those differences."

"It's sort of a depressing story," Umberson said with a rueful smile. She also has a personal interest in solving the puzzle of domestic tranquillity: "I'm divorced," said Umberson, who was married for eight years and has two children, "so I'm sort of a case study in how marital quality declines over time."

Positives fade and negatives increase during the life of a marriage, Umberson said. Obviously, some negatives people have little or no control over -- the death of a parent, for example, or the birth of a child with physical problems.

The main question the research team is interested in exploring is how health affects marriage and marriage affects health. On average, married people live longer than people who stay single.

Other key findings: The older couples are when they marry, the happier they tend to be.

The key to a relatively happy and long-lasting marriage is that the partners accept one another's annoyances (he throws his socks on the floor, she's utterly incapable of putting the cap back on the toothpaste) because they don't overwhelm the good aspects (she manages money well, he's great with the kids and pitches in on household chores).

More conclusions from the marriage study:

* Positive interactions diminish over time as negative interactions increase. Positive: Your partner listens to you and makes you feel loved and cared for. Negative: Your partner is negative or demanding.

* Couples with minor children in the house have worse marriages than their kid-free peers. But having adult children actually slows the decline in marital quality. In other words, raising kids is a pain, but when they turn into grandbaby-delivery systems, it's nothing but love.

* It's true that married people have better mental and physical health than their unmarried peers. However, there are indications that being stuck in a bad marriage may actually be worse for your health than being divorced. Moreover, if you're in a bad marriage, it has a greater effect on your health the older you are. Mental as well as physical health are affected. Umberson says stress, which can impact immune and cardiovascular function, is the prime culprit.

* Your parents were right: It's better to wait to get married. "Some of this may occur because people are nicer to one another as they get older, mellower," Umberson said. "Some of this occurs because our expectations change as we get older. And, the lower our expectations, the more positive life seems."

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