For decades, the prevailing wisdom on marital satisfaction over time has been one of steady decline. Massachusetts spouses begin marriage full of happiness and enthusiasm. Over time, however, the initial excitement cools and satisfaction settles into a state of subdued contentment. Researchers call this the “honeymoon-is-over” effect or, pejoratively, the “honeymoon-then-years-of-blandness” pattern.
Recent research, however, has called this perspective into question. Newer studies, for instance, have found that it is common for spouses to exhibit high levels of marital satisfaction long after tying the knot.
A new study published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science offers a new angle on this long-standing debate. Researchers at the University of Texas and the University of Georgia examined the influence of socioeconomic status on marital satisfaction and its change over time. Their thinking was this: since many of the existing studies on marital satisfaction were conducted with predominantly white, middle-class couples, there may be a systematic overestimation of the strength and longevity of marital satisfaction. In other words, economically disadvantaged couples might be more likely to experience declines in marital satisfaction than well-to-do couples.
To test their theory, the researchers tracked the marital satisfaction of 431 couples living in low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles County. Newlywed couples were contacted five times between 2009 and 2014 and were asked to respond to an eight-item questionnaire measuring marital satisfaction (for example, “how much do you trust your partner” and “satisfaction with the amount of time spent together”).
Based on people’s responses to the questionnaire, the researchers divided people into three categories of initial marital satisfaction: high, moderate, and low. Couples with relatively high initial marital satisfaction were most common (approximately 60% of couples fell into this category). Couples with moderate initial marital satisfaction represented approximately 30% of the couples surveyed, while low satisfaction couples made up the remaining 10%.
Next, the researchers tracked the trajectories of marital satisfaction for each group. In stark contrast to the “honeymoon-is-over” perspective, the researchers found that marital satisfaction was remarkably stable in couples who exhibited high, and even moderate, initial levels of satisfaction. It was only among the least initially satisfied group that the researchers found evidence for sharp declines in satisfaction over time.
The researchers also explored whether the trajectory of marital satisfaction over time differed by gender (i.e., husbands versus wives). Although they found similar patterns of stability among wives and husbands who started marriage either highly or moderately satisfied, they found that wives with relatively low levels of initial satisfaction showed the steepest declines over time. Interestingly, husbands who began marriage with relatively low levels of satisfaction showed initial declines but then a rebound in their satisfaction after three to five years of marriage.
Finally, to test the idea that economically disadvantaged couples may be most susceptible to declines in marital satisfaction, the researchers identified the couples who were most likely to experience socioeconomic risk to see if they were disproportionately represented in the low satisfaction group. They found that this was true for wives but not for husbands.
The researchers conclude, “Consistent with previous work, most spouses had high levels of satisfaction, substantial declines were limited to spouses with lower initial levels of satisfaction […]. Wives with higher levels of sociodemographic risk started marriage less satisfied and declined more in satisfaction. Overall, these findings reveal risky and resilient relationships among disadvantaged couples, with considerable stability during the newlywed years.”
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