The Science of Love
Noted Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson looks at why some marriages last for life.
For the past two decades, UC Berkeley psychology professor Robert Levenson has studied couples whose marriages survive—and surmount—life’s inevitable twists and turns. His findings? While there is no single path to marital stability, he says, it turns out that women (surprise!), genes, and the passage of time play significant roles in determining happy relationships. Here, Levenson, who directs UC Berkeley’s Institute for Personality and Social Research, shares some of his insights.
Q: What were you hoping to learn from studying married couples over a 20-year period?
A: When my colleagues and I started this study in the 1980s, we surveyed the landscape of couples research and saw that most of what had been done focused on marriages that failed. The research was all about understanding and predicting divorce. We wanted to look at the other side and study marriages that last.
At the time we began, the divorce rate in this country was creeping up to around 65 percent of all marriages, when it had traditionally been around 50 percent. We thought that this might be the last opportunity to find couples who had married for life. We said, kind of jokingly, that we were going to study the dinosaurs before they disappeared from the earth.
Q: How did you choose the couples?
A: We looked at 156 couples in middle age and later life who had been married a long time. We had two age groups. One was 40 to 50 years old, and they had to be married 15 years. The other group was 60 to 70 years old, and they had to be married 35 years. Every five years, these couples came back to us, and we took these unique snapshots of their marriage, in which we watched them interact and resolve conflicts.
This was important because, at the time, we thought that the key to marital stability was the ability to deal with conflict. In the life of every marriage there are both predictable and unpredictable challenges. For example, the birth of the first child is a huge challenge for many couples and a big spike in divorce. There are other well-researched challenges along the way, too: retirement, health issues, empty nest syndrome. We wanted to look at couples’ ability to deal with the curveballs that life throws you.
Q: And what did you learn?
A: When we started, we were convinced that it was all going to be about regulating the husband’s temperature because men tend to get uncomfortable with conflict and want to solve it quickly. That was our hunch, but it turned out to be just the opposite. Couples who seemed to get happier over the 20-year study were those who could regulate the wife’s emotions.
One thing that seems to be a universal characteristic of American heterosexual marriages is that the wives are the emotional centers, the emotional historians, and the emotional thermostats of the marriage. I don’t know if this is right or wrong, or fair or unfair, but that is what we saw.
Women have a very complicated job description. And one thing we found is that when wives are emotionally taken care of by their husbands, they will help their husbands in moments of conflict. They will invest in the relationship. But if the wives are distressed and not soothed or calmed, they will disinvest, and this is when the couples we studied did not do as well as others.
Q: You also found that there is a genetic component that may influence happy marriages. Can you explain this?
A: We saw that there is a consistent relationship between the gene that regulates serotonin [a neurotransmitter associated with well-being] and emotional functioning. There’s a variant of this gene, or an allele, and “short alleles” function as emotion amplifiers. So if people with short alleles are in a situation that produces sadness or fear or anger, they have more of those emotions, and if they are in a situation that produces positive emotions, they have more of those, too. On the other hand, people with “long alleles” are less affected by a marriage’s emotional highs and lows.
Our idea was that if people with short alleles were in a good environment over the 20 years of our study, a lot of positive emotions would accumulate. But does this mean we should all have our genes tested to find out if we have long or short alleles? Well, I don’t think knowing whether you are a short- or long-allele person gives you the secret to a happy marriage, but it might help you understand why some spouses are more affected by the emotional quality of the relationship.
Q: You also found that some emotional states improve in later life.
A: Yes. When researchers first started studying the psychology of late life, their guess was that it would always be a story of decline—mentally, physically, and emotionally. The theories were that in late life your emotional system becomes blunted and shuts down, and evolution does this to prepare us for death. But a different theory suggests that our socio-emotional life may even improve in late life.
We now know that couples in a lasting relationship become more emotionally positive over time. There is something about spending 40 or 50 years with another person that actually improves the emotional climate. We also found that the inclination to be caring and compassionate and to help others becomes stronger as we age. One theory is that part of the meaning of later life is to take care of others, and that is in our DNA somewhere.
Q: Is there any way that couples can predict their own happiness for the long term?
A: The idea that there is only one person in the world for you is not very predictive of happiness in the long term. When this happens in a young person, it’s really about something else, maybe fireworks or procreation. One of the things I joke about now is that because we know how good older people are at reading emotions, you should probably ask your grandparents for their approval of your marriage. I think older people look at things in terms of what is more appropriate later in life.