Marriage: It’s Only Going to Get Worse

Marriage: It’s Only Going to Get Worse

Jeanna Bryner / LiveScience Staff Writer / LiveScience.com
Tue Feb 5, 3:11 PM ET

If your spouse already bugs you now, the future is bleak. New
research suggests couples view one another as even more irritating and
demanding the longer they are together.

The same trend was not found for relationships with children or friends. 

The study results could be a consequence of accumulated contact with
a spouse, such that the nitpicking or frequent demands that once
triggered just a mild chafe develops into a major pain. But accumulated
irritation has its silver lining.

"As we age and become closer and more comfortable with one another,
it could be that we’re more able to express ourselves to each other,"
said lead study author Kira Birditt, a research fellow at the
University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. "In other
words, it’s possible that negativity is a normal aspect of close
relationships that include a great deal of daily contact."

Rather than breeding unhappy couples and ill health, the increase in negativity could be a normal part of relationships. 

"Because we found that pattern was overall among the participants,
it appears to be normative. It’s not something unusual that happens,"
Birditt said.

Relationship report

Birditt and U-M colleagues Lisa Jackey and Toni Antonucci looked at
how negative views of spouses, friends and children changed over time
and among different age groups, including young adults (ages 20 to 39),
middle-aged adults (40 to 59) and older adults (60 and over).

The researchers analyzed responses collected in 1992 and 2005 as
part of the Social Relations and Health Over the Life Course study, a
regionally representative sample of people from the greater Detroit
metropolitan area.

More than 800 individuals indicated the level of negativity in
relationships with their spouses or partners, children and best
friends. Participants also noted whether or not their responses
referred to the same spouse, child and friend during the 2005
interviews.

Each participant rated how strongly they agreed or disagreed with two statements:

"My (spouse/partner, child, friend) gets on my nerves."
"My (spouse/partner, child, friend) makes too many demands on me."

Irksome partners

In all age groups, individuals reported viewing their spouse as the
most negative compared with children and friends. The negative view of
spouses tended to increase over time.

"We were surprised because in the gerontological research, it
suggests that as people age they get better at regulating their
emotions and experience less negative relationships," Birditt told
LiveScience. "But we found that it depends on which relationship you’re
looking at."

As relationships with spouses became more negative, relationships
with children and friends seemed to become less demanding and
irritating over time. Negativity toward friends decreases over time
partially because we can continuously choose and weed our friends,
ditching those pals who are irritating, according to the researchers.

"Relationships with children may become less negative because of
role changes as children move through adolescence and young adulthood,
grow and mature, usually becoming more stable and independent," Birditt
explained. Kids moving out didn’t seem to impact spousal negativity,
however, as the researchers found the same trend for spouses
irrespective of the age group.

Participants in their 20s and 30s reported having the most negative
relationships overall. Older adults had the least negative
relationships with spouses, children and friends. Past research by
Birditt and others has shown that older adults are more likely to
report less conflict in their relationships compared with younger
adults.

"Older adults are more likely than younger people to report that
they try to deal with conflict by avoiding confrontations, rather than
by discussing problems," Birditt said.

In general, the longer partners stay together, the more they have to
deal with the other’s idiosyncrasies, for instance. "When you’re living
together, it’s a lot harder to avoid each other," Birditt said.

The research was presented in November at an annual meeting of the
Gerontological Society of America, and it has also been submitted to a
journal for publication.

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