Couples become more affectionate as they age, UC Berkeley study finds

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Long-term couples replace negative emotions with positive emotions, including affection and humor, as they age, a new UC Berkeley study found.

The study, which followed more than 50 couples, showed that as couples age, conflicts became more emotionally positive and affectionate. The paper was published in the November edition of the scientific journal Emotion.

Co-lead author Alice Verstaen, who helped conduct the study as a campus graduate student, said this study differs from previous studies because of its focus on long-term rather than short-term marriages.

“Prior to this study, most research on marriage had focused on younger marriages that ended in separation and divorce,” Verstaen said in an email. “Our study was designed to focus on marriages that had lasted for many years. The idea was that these successful longer-term marriages could provide important clues as to what makes marriages succeed and stay together over time.”

The researchers conducted the experiment in three waves over a 13-year period. During each wave, researchers videotaped couples engaging in an unrehearsed 15-minute conversation regarding an area of disagreement in their marriage. Researchers later compared the videos to monitor changes in emotional behavior between visits.

By the end of the study, all the couples had been married for at least 35 years, according to Verstaen. She added that some of the older couples had been married for more than 50 years.

“This finding is important because it tells us that as these marriages matured … the spouses became better at handling disagreements in a more positive, less negative way,” Verstaen said in an email. “This bodes well for their abilities to solve the many problems and challenges that marriages inevitably face over time.”

The study was led by campus psychology professor Robert Levenson. Co-authors Claudia Haase, an assistant professor at Northwestern University, and Sandy Lwi, a researcher at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, also contributed to the study.

The experiment is part of a larger study that began in Levenson’s laboratory in the 1980s. Levenson, who has now followed more than 150 long-term marriages, has contributed to other papers about the study. One such paper linked different types of emotions to physical ailments, including back pain and cardiovascular problems.

“Over the years, we’ve learned (so) much from this study,” Haase said in an email. “For example, on the link between anger and cardiovascular symptoms, such as high blood pressure and the role of DNA in marital satisfaction.”

Contact Alexandra Stassinopoulos at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AE_Stass.