If you’ve ever looked at an older couple laughing together while holding hands and wondered why you don’t seem to have that problem-free ease with your partner, you’re not alone. According to new research out of Penn State and Brigham Young University, when it comes to being happy in your relationship, there is such a thing as a “magic number.”
The study, published in Social Networks and the Life Course, found that marital satisfaction tended to decline in the first 20 years of marriage, and after that point it went back up. So if you’re a newly married person, here’s the good news: There’s a lot to look forward to. But other than that, how can you get happier in those first sweet years of marriage? Here’s what the experts have to say.
Why older couples tend to be happier.
According to Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, co-author of Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, couples often experience greater satisfaction later in life because by that point they’ve developed the skills necessary to thrive in their relationship. “They likely have a more mature relationship,” she explains. “In the beginning—in the newlywed stage—we experience a greater frequency of high-arousal positive emotions like interest, amusement, and joy. Over time, as the relationship develops and matures, we experience more of the calmer emotions like serenity, gratitude, and inspiration, which are associated with a deeper bond and connection with our partner.”
So is “newlywed bliss” a myth?
While this study may provide comfort for anyone going through a rough patch in the first few years of marriage—and yes, kids can be a factor in that!—resigning yourself to two decades of partial unhappiness isn’t the way to go either. Marriage counselor Linda Carroll, M.S., says the “newlywed bliss” isn’t a myth at all, and you should relish in the fun, new experiences you’re having together in those first few years of married life.
Pawelski adds that the most important thing you can do is acknowledge that all relationships, no matter how new, do take work—and that’s when the fairy tales get dangerous. “I think it’s important to realize that unlike in fairy tales, happily ever after doesn’t just happen,” she explains. “Rather, in real life, it’s healthy habits that build long-term love. We need to put effort into our relationships like we do into our physical health.”
What you can do to up satisfaction in your younger relationship.
If you’re going through a rough patch with your partner, there are a few ways to start working through it for greater relationship satisfaction. Pawelski recommends focusing on what’s going right. “Positive psychology research suggests we can build a stronger bond by shifting our focus to what’s going right with our partner,” she explains. “One way to do this is by identifying our strengths and those of our partners and focusing on nurturing them rather than dwelling on small annoyances in our relationship,” she explains. “In brief, positive psychology researchers have identified 24 character strengths that have been valued across time and culture. Qualities like creativity, love of learning, zest, curiosity, and kindness make the list.”
Once you’ve done this, she suggests going on “strength dates.” “A strength date entails choosing one of your top strengths (e.g., zest) and one of your partner’s (e.g., love of learning) and planning a date or outing where you both have an opportunity to use that strength,” she says. “Strengths dates allow each person to use his or her natural qualities, which is associated with greater well-being.”
In other words, don’t just wait around for it to get better. Take action now, and you’ll see even better results 20 years down the road.