The honeymoon always ends. Are the positive effects of marriage also temporary? Shawn Grover and John Helliwell (2014) would tell you otherwise.
These men studied large bodies of marital data over long periods of time. They believe that marriage buffers you against life stressors. Especially if — a big if — your spouse is your best friend. Indeed, they state “those whose spouse or partner is also considered their best friend get almost twice as much additional life satisfaction from marriage or cohabitation as do others.”
Put in different words, marriage benefits don’t end when the honeymoon is over (although the high point of a marriage is immediate). Indeed, even if your spouse isn’t absolutely your closest companion, a permanent union provides significant aid with life’s problems, say the authors. Grover and Helliwell remind us of past research showing a U-shaped curve describing the life satisfaction experienced by adults. There is a decline in well-being from early adulthood to a bottoming-out period in middle age (late 40s and 50s) before happiness rebounds later in life. That explains the U-shape. Grover and Helliwell conclude the greatest benefit of marital satisfaction occurs precisely at this most stressful time of life. The figure below shows the low point is much less dramatic for those living together than for single individuals.
This research is not without its critics, particularly those who note major differences in reported psychological marriage benefits (or their absence) depending on where in the world you live. Moreover, the large body of research on marriage and children suggests rearing a family to be challenging and stressful. Indeed, the differences of opinion on the value of the Grover/Halliwell study should be a reminder not to be too comfortable with media-driven reports of scientific breakthroughs, wonder drugs, etc., when only a single study is taken as evidence. Still, the Grover and Helliwell research is worth thinking about. If you do, some interesting tangential thoughts appear:
For example, given the decline in equanimity from one’s early adult life to middle age (in general), it is possible some married individuals in the midst of a natural decline will blame the partner. If so, a new “significant other” could bring only a temporary boost in fulfillment, followed by an eventual return to the same life-satisfaction slippage.
Work in the area of happiness also triggers the question, why might mid-life be so tough for us? A few thoughts:
- Your body looks and feels different.
- You’ve lived long enough to have some regrets.
- Mortality is creeping up on you.
- The demands of work, raising children (assuming you have them), and aging parents confront declining energy.
Past mid-life, the last item in the list should have resolved itself to some degree. With respect to the first three, one imagines you’ve had the time to adjust and come to terms with them once past middle-age.
Still, it is difficult to dismiss the benefits of having a life partner who is a best friend, although one shouldn’t rule out a selection of people who will be better off single, especially if they have a full and intimate social life and don’t want kids.
Subject to revision, I conclude the following:
- Changing horses (excuse me — life partners) in mid-stream might not be the best idea for either sex.
- The end of the honeymoon does not mark the end of marriage benefits, unless your marriage is a poor one.
- If you are not as happy at 45 as you were at 25, welcome to mid-life and its pile-up of stresses!
- That said, married or not, stick around — you are likely to rebound in a few more years.
A couple of other things to consider. The selection of a “best friend” in the early heat of a relationship isn’t high on our evolutionarily-produced brain’s to-do list. The machine in your skull is concerned with catapulting your genes into the generation ahead. Your happiness is beside the evolutionary point, except to the extent it might improve the survival of your offspring. Therefore, hunting for a trustworthy emotional and intellectual match is going to be your job, not necessarily the work of your ancient biological programming.
Finally, if friendship in marriage is important, it follows that one should reflect on one’s friendship history — your experience in intimate platonic relationships. If your track record of non-sexual confidants is weak, I suspect your chance of making a good lover/alter ego choice will be more complicated than if you easily retain closeness with others. Your inflamed passions — are there any other kind? — will steam your brain, reducing the ease of making a good friendship choice simultaneously with identifying a potential reproductive partner.
Why bother, you ask? Why not let nature take its course? At worst, by addressing your ability to make and keep buddies, you might improve your social support system. At best, you’ll prepare yourself to find the companion of a lifetime.
The research cited is: How’s Life at Home? New Evidence on Marriage and the Set Point, by Shawn Grover and John F. Helliwell. NBER working paper 20794, copyright 2014.
The cartoon, “Shoes,” is courtesy of Nick Galifianakis. His website is a delight: http://www.nickandzuzu.com. He has also published a wonderful book of his cartoons available there and elsewhere: