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The Scientific Secret to a Long, Happy Marriage

But it might be parenting.

“What’s your secret?” It’s a question I don’t hear much now — my wife and I have only been married for three years —  but aspire to hear some decades in the future when we’re near our golden anniversary. I want my marriage to last. Unfortunately, I have much more exposure to information about why marriages end — infidelity, incompatibility, boredom — than why the last. Relatively little scientific work has been done on successful marriages. It is, after all, always easiest to focus on a problem.

There have, however, been some studies. Scientists narrowed down the basic points in a study published in Family Therapy back in 2001. They interview 15 heterosexual couples who had been married for at least 35 years, and found that, predictably, friendship and love were two consistent factors in highly functional marriage. But they also uncovered several fascinating trends in their review of the literature. The findings suggested there may be a concrete, measurable answer to what keeps some people together.

“Friendship and love, among several other factors, appear to be not only a benefit of the long-term marriage, but a cause,” the authors conclude. “The responses of the fifteen couples in this study indicate a marriage that is woven together tightly due to similarities that may have existed in the beginning, or perhaps have developed through the years together.”

One of the first major studies on marriage longevity was conducted by Cuber and Haroff in 1965. They studied marriages that had lasted 10 years, and concluded that such relationships fall into two categories. When a couple prioritizes their marriage over their commitment to one another as individuals, that’s called an Instrumental Marriage. Intrinsic Marriage, on the other hand, is when the couple prioritizes each other over their marital unit. Building on this work, Weishaus and Field studied marriages that had lasted 50 years in 1988, and concluded that commitment to the marriage itself (essentially, Instrumental Marriage) was key. Later, however, the literature began to more closely suggest that a strong marriage was both Instrumental and Intrinsic. As Lauer, Lauer, and Kerr put it in 1990, “being committed to both marriage itself and the partner as a person…were the keys to a stable and satisfied long-term marriage.”

For this more recent study, researchers took a different tact. They asked a small, non-diverse sample of 15 heterosexual couples a series of questions about their marriages. And, while such limited results are hard to generalize, the study did reveal several reasons why marriage might last.

When asked, “why do you think that you have been married as long as you have?” the three most common responses were love, similar backgrounds or interests, and friendship. In response to “how have your children affected the longevity of your marriage?”, all participants reported that their children had strengthened their bonds — although half mentioned a stressful adjustment period early on. Barely one-third felt that religious values played a role, but 80 percent opined that their parents’ good marriages had a positive effect on their own marriages.

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On one hand, the results have limited implications. “A wide range of responses were recorded,” the authors write. “While the general themes of the responses include similar backgrounds, love, and friendship, the huge variance in the answers indicate that for each couple, and more, still, for each individual, the marital relationship is different. There appears to be no one factor or group of factors that have overwhelmingly contributed to the longevity of the marriages.”

At the same time, the study hints at several starting points toward marital bliss. Prior research supports the notion that children of successful marriages are more likely to have healthy relationships, and experience certainly backs the idea that children strengthen a marriage — but only after thoroughly testing it. Of course, vague but essential feelings of friendship and compatibility, cited by couples across studies as crucial to marital bliss, are also important factors.

One key factor that emerged from the study, however, is that successful married couples tend to agree on why their marriages last. This suggests that a strong relationship is less about any one factor, and more about being on the same wavelength. “A long-term and satisfying marriage is not merely a matter of finding someone who can make you happy,” the authors conclude. “It is a matter of two people who have a shared understanding of what their marriage means for them.”