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August 13, 2004

Research Reveals What Most Accelerates
the Erosion of Marital Happiness

Austin, TX – A new study by a University of Texas-Austin sociologist provides insights into how and why marital quality changes over time—a real-life issue for many couples who are married, thinking of marrying, or perhaps thinking of divorcing their partners.

Debra Umberson, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts, will present findings from her study, “As Good as It Gets? A Life Course Perspective on Marital Quality,” at the 2004 American Sociological Association annual meeting, August 15, in San Francisco. The study examines the developmental trajectories of marital quality, taking into account age, length of marriage, and parental status of the partners.

“Marriages, like individuals, follow a developmental trajectory over time—with ups and downs and gains and losses,” Umberson said. “We find that, on average, marital quality tends to decline over time, corroborating recent research on marital quality change.”

Although the tendency is for marital quality to decline over time, some groups begin with much higher levels of marital quality than others. Moreover, a number of factors can accelerate or slow this path of change.

While being married longer is associated with decreasing marital quality, age is associated with better marital quality. In fact, the study provides the first evidence that age is more strongly and consistently associated with marital quality than how long the couple has been married. This suggests that more emphasis should be placed on developmental change in marital quality that may occur as individuals grow older.

“The couple may become less emotionally reactive to conflict and marital difficulties as they age and this may be beneficial to the marriage,” Umberson said. “Perhaps our standards for evaluating partners also mellow with age or perhaps we become more appreciative of our partner’s positive traits and less focused on the negative. It may be that the collective history of a couple is an asset that accrues value with time, and this collective history is strongly influenced by whether or not they have parented together,” she added.

The study shows parental status and parenting transitions have strong effects on marital quality and these effects further depend on the age of the parents. While the findings are complex, they suggest that parenting may have more costs for marriages of younger people, more rewards later in life, and more modest effects in mid-life. Moreover, it is not simply being a parent versus not being a parent that shapes marital quality; it is the timing of parenting and parenting transitions. For example, being childless may be beneficial to the marriages of younger people but marital quality is enhanced by parenthood later in life. In addition, having children in early adulthood, as compared to later in adulthood, has enduring negative consequences for marital quality.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging. The research paper will be published later this year in the journal Social Forces.

Debra Umberson can be reached at the University of Texas-Austin at (512) 471-3255 or via e-mail at Umberson@mail.la.utexas.edu.

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