This is what happens to your relationship as you age

Posted by
Emily Reynolds

Early relationships are often characterised by bickering. But that fades, new research has found

Whenever you start seeing someone new, there are a number of relationship landmarks you tend to take note of. There’s the first kiss, of course; first dates, the first time you sleep with someone. We experience hundreds of wonderful, fresh new feelings.

It’s not always rainbows and butterflies, though: inevitably, the time comes when we have our first fight with our new love. Early and medium-term relationships are often characterised by bickering – so much so that many end because of it.

But according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley, it won’t last forever – and, in fact, as we get older, our relationships start to become less combative and more humorous and accepting. 

Researchers videotaped conversations between 87 middle-aged and elderly married couples, all of whom had been married between fifteen to thirty-five years, as well as tracking their “emotional interactions” over 13 years. And they found that “as couples aged, they showed more humour and tenderness towards each other”. 

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Defensiveness and criticism also decreased over the years – which researchers say challenges the view that emotionals flatten or decrease over age. 

“Our findings shed light on one of the great paradoxes of late life,” said senior author Robert 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.”

And co-author Alice Verstaen said that the findings “underscore the importance of intimate relationships as people age, and the potential health benefits associated with marriage”. 

Researchers have been tracking the couples, all of whom live in San Francisco, since the late 1980s. Listening and speaking behaviours were “coded and rated according to their facial expressions, body language, verbal content and tone of voice”, and emotions were categorised into “anger, contempt, disgust, domineering behaviour, defensiveness, fear, tension, sadness, whining, interest, affection, humour, enthusiasm and validation.”

“These results provide behavioural evidence that is consistent with research suggesting that, as we age, we become more focused on the positives in our lives,” Verstaen said.

So next time you’re wringing your hands over a stupid argument, don’t panic – in fifteen years, you won’t even remember it. 

Image:  Unsplash / Getty