You want a really BIG picture view of marriage? Here you go.
People get married for good, not-so-good, and completely idiotic reasons. A lot of these marriages turn out to be bad. But: divorce to the rescue! Divorce weeds out the bad marriages. The easier it is to divorce, the more likely it is that the remaining marriages are good. Because the bad ones have dropped by the wayside.
So when you look at people who’ve been married for a long time, what do you find? A recent study finds one answer. You find that “In time, humor—friendly teasing, jokes, and silliness—becomes more prevalent, and bickering and criticisms decline.”
What are we to make of this, and how do we turn this into news we can use?
For that, you have to dig more deeply. Fortunately, we’re researchers, so we can do that.
First of all, bickering and criticisms decline in the sample because the couples who are still together after 13 to 35 years already had less to argue over than the couples who drop out of the sample. They were just better matched for one another.
Second, and this is not good news, there’s less bickering because in many cases the couples who stay together manage to do so by finding ways to not deal with each other when it comes to the areas they fight about. “I don’t argue with him about the way he dresses. I just don’t go anywhere with him where his clothing is going to embarrass me.” It’s not that they’re getting along better; they just have less to get along poorly over.
Third, the kids are gone, thank god. Kids are great and I’m totally glad we had kids. But the data on this is pretty clear: kids are not good for your relationship. Kids stress the relationship in all kinds of ways, and it takes a couple a few years to recover once the kids leave home, if they ever do leave home.
Fourth, what about what we talk about in our new book: eliminating the power dynamics in a couple’s relationship? The fact that so many positive behaviors are there in survivor couples is encouraging. And so I’ll go out on a limb. I hypothesize that many of these survivor couples find their own way to eliminate the power struggles from their relationship because time and pain have shown them that power struggles are a love-destroying waste of time.
Why love-destroying? Well, it seems as though even though things get better over time, long-lasting couples “either exchanged about the same number of caring statements and compliments through the years,” or else the “wives offered fewer of them.”
Why did expressions of caring stay flat when other things were getting better? Let’s go back to the big picture. The power dynamics we talk about in Why Couples Fight do not help the people in the relationship get their needs met but they do make it harder for the two people to care about one another. And these power dynamics are present in almost all relationships.
Some relationships die as a result. Some relationships survive in spite of them. Having a sense of humor helps! But once life stressors lessen their grip, affection can’t rebound because of the damage done by those power struggles.
Why Couples Fight is about how to start turning all this around starting now. So that when the things you have no control over start getting better, the two of your will still be around, happy, light-hearted, loving, and more affectionate than ever.