Relationships & Dating

The Benefits of Long-Term Marriage

A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research demonstrates, once again, that married people are happier than their single counterparts, even when controlling for levels of pre-marriage happiness levels. This is a finding that comes up again and again, but has not easily found consensus among sociologists and psychologists who have sought an explanation. Sociologists point out that stable long-term marriages are increasingly scarce among low-income people. Yet psychological findings indicate that marriage provides a bulwark against the life stresses that hit lower-income people the hardest.

According to Shawn Grover of the Canadian Department of Finance, “Marriage may be most important when there is that stress in life and when things are going wrong.” This outlasts the “honeymoon” period and is found throughout the life cycle. It turns out to be particularly important in middle age, when almost all people — in Western cultures, at least — experience a dip in happiness and an increase in stress levels. It is believed that this is because this is the time in life when career and family demands are at their highest.

A key finding in the study was the importance of the role of friendship. Those who considered their spouse to be their “best friend” reported getting twice as much life satisfaction from marriage as others do. This makes a lot of intuitive sense, and in my clinical experience, I think it is particularly relevant to the success of long-term marriages. Although it isn’t perhaps the only necessary ingredient, it may be a crucial one. Nietzsche, the German philosopher (who was himself a lifelong bachelor), said, “Marriage is a long conversation.” Indeed, it is extremely important to find your partner interesting and amusing, but when you think of the breadth and depth of the situations you find yourselves in together over the course of a lifetime, you realize how much more there is involved in this kind of friendship. (We all know people whom we can talk to endlessly but whom we wouldn’t want to have to count on in a lifeboat.)

Two of the most important aspects of a deep friendship are shared values and loyalty. I’ve known couples — usually those who have married young — whose relationships have faltered over the former. As they matured and their values deepened and developed, they found themselves growing in divergent ways that were too important to be overcome. Sometimes this can be a conflict over religion or politics; occasionally one partner reverses positions about children or careers. Some shared agreement in the original “contract” that is too important to overlook is broken or amended, and husband and wife part ways. Many couples like these go on to have successful second marriages, choosing more wisely now that they know and understand themselves better.

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