If conflict and rancor now buffet your marriage, there's hope: A new study says that couples who manage to remain together learn to get along better as they age.
The study by researchers at Stanford University, the University of Washington and the University of California, Berkeley, also appears to -- the long-held theory that emotions generally dampen with age. In fact, both positive and negative emotions remain intense throughout life, according to the new research.
Robert W. Levenson, a psychology professor at Berkeley, said the study does not show that aging by itself turns unhappy marriages into happy ones. But the study of more than 150 middle-aged and elderly couples does show that spouses, even those who remain unhappy with each other, learn to get along better as they age, and it showed conclusively that the older couples were happier.
The research buttresses a developing theory in sociology and psychology that marriages tend to improve with time.
"You develop the ability to not lose sight of the love in the relationship, and to express it," said Dr. Levenson, who worked on the study with Laura Carstensen of Stanford and John Gottman of the University of Washington.
"Even among unhappy couples there is greater affection among older couples when they argue than among younger couples," said Dr. Levenson.
Dr. Levenson also said the "emotional quality" of the marriages of elderly spouses was "quite vibrant, which goes against the wisdom . . . that old age is a time of decrement.
"We didn't find any evidence of a lessening of the amount of emotion in these older marriages," he said. "There are very few areas where things don't decline, and this may be one."
Previous studies over the past four decades have ranged in their conclusions about how aging affects both marriages and emotions.
In the 1950s and 1960s, many researchers believed that marital satisfaction suffered an inevitable decline over the years. More recently, studies identified a pattern marking high levels of happiness at the outset of marriages followed by a decline in the child-rearing years and, afterward, an upswing.
Similarly, theories in the 1950s "depicted emotion as dampened, rigid and flat" in old age, notes Dr. Levenson's study. However, "a growing body of . . . evidence is painting quite a different picture," with studies now reporting an "intensity of emotion . . . comparable for old and young people."
The new study, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, involved 156 couples from the Berkeley area.
The middle-aged couples, with a mean age of 44, had been married at least 15 years; the older couples had a mean age of 64 and been together for at least 35 years. All were in their first marriages; researchers deemed about 25 percent of the couples to be unhappy.
The racial composition of the group was skewed, however, with whites accounting for 86 percent of the survey group.