Book shows some marriages get better with age

Book shows some marriages get better with age

Fiona Ng, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, September 7, 2008

At 59 and 64 years old, Barbara and Gene Ferguson consider themselves exceptional in several respects.

For one, they married late, comparatively speaking, for their generation. And they are still married, after more than 30 years – very happily so. The Fergusons meant the till-death-do-us-part pledge made on that spring day in February 1975. When they were in their ninth year of marriage, Barbara spotted an ad in a local newspaper recruiting couples in the Berkeley area for a long-term marriage study. Given that the only thing she ever seemed to hear about marriage had to do with folks wanting to get out of it, the ad got her attention. “My parents were divorced,” she says. “It interested me.”

Barbara showed it to her husband. “I really had no idea what it was going to be,” Gene recalled. “I was like, ‘Sure, I am game.'” Thus began the Fergusons’ participation in the longest longitudinal study ever – conducted over two decades, and concluding this year – on long-term marriage.

“We were thinking it would be interesting to look at a group of couples who have been together long enough to have gotten through those rough, early problems that plague marriages,” said Robert Levenson, who devised the study alongside the Relationship Research Institute’s John Gottman and Laura Carstensen at Stanford.

Long-term marriage is only recently getting the kind of research attention that has long been focused on the early years. Last week, “September Songs: The Good News About Marriage in the Later Years,” (Riverhead Books, 243 pgs.; $24.95) by Maggie Scarf was published, a book that reveals her findings after interviewing nearly 70 older couples in the East Coast about their lives.

“In the 1900s, the average life expectancy was 47.6,” Scarf says. “And in this century, the fact is that there’s this huge increase in the lifespan. I wanted to study this group from this point of view.”

What she and Levenson discovered is that long marriages do not necessarily deserve the bad rap they have gotten as inevitably boring and passionless.

“Common thinking was that, as marriages age, they sort of burn out, and they become kind of distant and disconnected,” says Levenson. “We learned right away that was not the case, that marriages continue to be really just as emotional, in terms of the overall amount of emotions, in middle and late life as they do early in life.”

Marriages follow U-curve
The study also suggests that the trajectory of some long-term marriages follows something of a U-curve, in that some older couples feel a jump in marital satisfaction in the latter stages of union – a rediscovery of the kind of contentment that typically characterizes the early stages of coupledom.

“Couples are pretty happy with their marriages when they are newlyweds, then their satisfaction sinks during the difficult times, such as the birth of children, children going off school and balancing family building with career building. Thus, during the middle years of marriages, couples are less happy with their marriages,” Levenson said. “But then, after the children leave home and sometimes also after retirement, many couples who stay together rediscover each other and become happier.”

Even so, he added, it is not a pure, bump-free return, as issues of health, money and adjusting to life after retirement remain sources of possible tension.

To reach his findings, Levenson and his team recruited two groups of heterosexual couples, all in their first marriages, in the Bay Area in the mid-1980s. Group 1 included those in their 40s and 50s who had been married for at least 15 years; the second sample was people in their 60s and 70s, married an average of 35 years. The idea was to see what would happen as Group 1 became the age of Group 2 and Group 2 dealt with health changes and widowhood. Every five years or so, Levenson and his team checked in on the groups.

These sessions were essentially conversations, which were videotaped, between husbands and wives – the kind of chats couples would have at the dinner table and after being apart. The Fergusons remember the sensors taped above their pulses and sweat glands clearly – one tool Levenson and his team used to measure certain physiological responses denoting, among other attributes, how well one spouse can calm and comfort the other. “Couples that can’t soothe each other don’t do well over the long run, and during late life in particular, this is the person you turn to for things,” he said.

Communication is key
There were also questions about arguments – how much, why they have them, etc. – which stumped Elaine and Gust Platias, Bay Area natives who have been married for 53 years. She is 74, he’s 79. Over five decades, the Platiases have gone through ups and downs, including their youngest daughter being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the 1980s, and the Oakland firestorm of 1991, which burned down their home. Instead of caving under the pressure, though, the two got closer. How? By talking things through, listening to the other person, compromising.

“We don’t have that many things that are so different. Gust is very agreeable, and I can always tell when he’s not going to be happy about something, and I don’t push it,” says Elaine, who joined the study because she, too, thought there was little information about why couples stay together.

“That’s right. If anything, I always give in,” Gust chimes in gleefully.

“That’s why I married him,” jokes Elaine. The couple burst into laughter.

Regulating emotion
In Levenson’s research parlance, that laughter could be tagged as warm, long and affectionate. After each visit, the research lab spent a couple of years cataloging every taped conversation for various kinds of laughter, emotions (anger, happiness, sadness, fear, disgust) and particular words and phrases (among them: I love you, I hate you, you don’t respect me, you don’t like me).

“The thing we were most interested in is how couples express and regulate emotion,” says Levenson. “We are interested in the emotions they show on their face, the emotional words they say and the ways that emotions are manifest in their physiology.”

In her book, Scarf explains that changes occur in the brain (for example, the pre-frontal cortex, a recent Australian study has shown) as one ages, making an older person happier and more able to deal with stress. Another cause is that older people are more focused.

“People are not looking to make it with somebody who’s looking to further their career, they are not putting on hold anything that has to do with emotional gratification. They are aware that their time left to live is shorter than the time that has passed by, in terms of years once you pass 50,” Scarf says.

“You may lose hearing, you may lose memory, you may lose reaction time, you may have losses of all kinds that have to do with aging – the fact is that there’s one domain where … you often gain, which is emotional control and emotional processing,” she says. This increased aptitude, Levenson’s research also found, is one ingredient in marital longevity.

For Barbara Ferguson, the description rings true. She singles out her 40s as being the most trying period: She was operating a day care center for toddlers out of their Oakland home (which she still does now), so that she could be there for their two boys, now 28 and 24. Her husband was working as an assistant registrar, away from the house every weekday between 6:15 a.m. and 6:15 p.m.

At times, the mundanity was overwhelming. “It probably was a difficult time for me personally, because you’re kind of going … ‘This is it. This is it,’ ” says Barbara. “And it took me (getting) through my 40s to go, ‘It is it. It’s perfect. I have two great kids, I have a wonderful husband, I have got my business.’ ”

Communication, compassion and commitment, Ferguson says, were what pulled her and her husband through the rough waters of life – and marriage.

“I think we’ll have a lot of bliss in the next 10, 20 years,” she says. “But you have got to work at it to make it work. It’s not a given.”