Marital Bliss Not a Guarantee

Kind of person you are before you tie the knot is key, researchers find

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By
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, March 28, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- As they exchange marriage vows, many couples picture a life of perpetual bliss.

But new research shows that although it seems to boost life satisfaction by a slight degree, how blissfully happy couples find themselves after they tie the knot has a lot to do with how satisfied with life they were before they wed.

People who tend to be happy before they marry are likely to find they are happy afterwards, and people who are less satisfied with their life before marriage are likely to remain so, says a study in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

People adapt to new circumstances, explains study author Richard E. Lucas, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

"The people who do get married were happier than average before they married," he notes, which also suggests that being an upbeat person makes you more likely to marry.

On the flip side, when those who are generally not very happy do marry, they report more of a rise in their happiness level, the study found. This may be because they were lonely and stand to gain more from the union than a happy person who has always had many social contacts, the researchers suggest.

The study also looks at the happiness of those who have lost a spouse and found that while both men and women are initially dissatisfied with life after their partner dies, women tend to be more profoundly affected in the early years of grief. Still, both sexes adapt and return close to previous levels of happiness about eight years after losing their loved one.

The researchers used data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study that included more than 24,000 individuals contacted randomly by phone. In the 15 years of the study, 1,761 participants began the study unmarried, became married at some point, and stayed married until the end of the study or they could no longer be contacted. These individuals represented 79 percent of all those who became married at some point in the study.

Surveys were conducted by face-to-face interviews when possible, and participants were contacted annually.

The questions included marital status, employment, income, and queries regarding satisfaction with life. Subjects rated their satisfaction on a scale of 0 to 10 (with 10 being totally happy). The researchers controlled for yearly changes in overall life satisfaction in Germany due to the fall of the Berlin Wall and other factors.

While many other studies have reported on marriage and happiness, most did not follow the participants through years of being single and then marrying, Lucas says. This study has the advantage of providing information through a number of life cycles, he notes.

While many outside factors can affect one's happiness, Lucas says, these findings reflect "what happens, on average, to people after they get married."

"Marriage doesn't tremendously change our life satisfaction," he concludes, adding that is not to say there are no benefits. Other studies have indicated those who marry are healthier or better off economically.

Robert Coombs certainly believes marriage has its advantages. The clinical psychologist from the University of California in Los Angeles has conducted a wide range of research on how marriage affects people. He says there is no doubt that "it's a mental health asset to be married."

Other studies have shown a more substantial increase in happiness brought about by marriage, not to mention other mental and physical health benefits, he says.

If a marriage is good, having a supportive partner to listen and always be there confers untold benefits, Coombs adds. "It's like having a live-in psychiatrist."

Coombs agrees that people adapt, and those that are generally happy will stay happy, while those less content may continue to feel unfulfilled. "The best predictor of the future is the past," he says.

But he remains a fervent proponent of marriage: "Having a good partner makes you healthier."

More information

To find out how sex relates to marital happiness, go to Hope College. For more on the state of marriage today, click on the Family Research Council.

SOURCES: Richard E. Lucas, Ph.D., assistant professor, psychology, Michigan State University, East Lansing; Robert Coombs, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, University of California, Los Angeles; March 2003 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

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