A new UC Berkeley study examined videotaped conversations between a large sample of middle-aged and older husbands and wives who had been married for 15 to 35 years. Over the course of 13 years, researchers tracked the emotional interactions of the study group finding that couples who were married for longer than 35 years began to grow more and more benevolent toward each other, as differences became more likely to be a source of humor as opposed to conflict.
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The study sample of over 150 long-term marriages, the majority of which are now in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, are all heterosexual couples from the San Francisco Bay Area. The study’s lead author, a UC Berkeley psychology professor by the name of Robert Levenson, and a team of researchers would review 15 minute interactions between the participants in a laboratory setting while the couples discussed shared experiences and conflicts.
Every few years Levenson and his fellow researchers coded and rated speaking behaviors via the participants’ facial expressions, body language, verbal content, and tone of voice. These emotions were then segmented into the categories of anger, contempt, disgust, domineering behavior, defensiveness, fear, tension, sadness, whining, interest, affection, humor, enthusiasm, and validation.
The research published in the journal Emotion not only cited an increase in positive behaviors expressed between seasoned couples beginning at middle age, such as humor and affection, the authors additionally saw decreases in negative behaviors such as defensiveness and criticism.
“Our findings shed light on one of the great paradoxes of late life,” observed Levenson. “Despite experiencing 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.”
Women were generally found to be more emotionally expressive than male participants, though wives shifted toward more assertive, domineering behavior as they got older. Even still, across all ages, and gender cohorts analyzed in the study, negative conduct consistently decreased with age.
“These results provide behavioral evidence that is consistent with research suggesting that, as we age, we become more focused on the positives in our lives,” Verstaen said.
Jeff and Satoko Davidson were one of the couples observed in the recent study. On the success behind their nearly 50 year-long marriage, Jeff says he doesn’t simply tolerate his marriage, he appreciates it. While recalling the stressful pressures applied to both he and his wife over the years, Jeff found that humor frequently pulled them through. Satoko adds, as a piece of advice to aspiring couples, “If you work together, you can generally get through most situations.”
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