The Myth of Relationship Decline

“You’re happy now, but just wait until you’re married for (fill in the blank) years.” You may have heard this phrase, or something like it. You may have said it yourself. Regardless of who says it, they are not alone in that view. It is commonly believed in our culture (and, until relatively recently, in relationship science) that relationships are wonderful in the beginning, filled with a romantic love that people should enjoy while they can, as the decline in relationship happiness and romantic love will inevitably come.

Sadly, because this is a widely held idea, it is may also be commonplace for people to get married or enter long-term relationships believing at some level that the beginning is as good as it’s ever going to get. Just imagine making a new friend or having a child with the notion that your best years with your friend or child are at the beginning, and that it’s all downhill from there. What a dismal vision!

According to recent research on long-term marriages and partnerships, it is also an untrue vision. It turns out that there is more than one path relationships can take from their start to their finish (i.e., divorce/breaking-up, or death). Relationship scientists have found that the waters were a bit muddied in previous relationship research because couples who would ultimately follow different long-term relationship paths got mixed together into a single group. This created the illusion that relationships generally decline (Lavner, Bradbury, & Karnet, 2012). True, a number of couples will follow that declining path. However, research shows that what most strongly distinguishes couples whose relationship happiness will decline from those who will remain stably happy (58% of husbands and 69% of wives) over time is actually what they were like at the start of their relationship. What this means is that people whose happiness declines are actually the ones who had more problems to begin with (Lavner, Bradbury, & Karney, 2012). So, if you  want to get a sense of where your relationship may be heading, you might want to consider how it was at the start. As one of my wise former psychology mentors always used to say, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

A nationwide study supports the idea that many couples can and do enjoy enduring close connections and intense romantic love (Acevedo, Aron, Huddy, & Mashek, 2012). Among people who were married for at least 30 years, 35% of husbands and 40% of wives said that they were “very intensely in love” with their spouse. Those who said they were intensely in love also tended to be physically affectionate with their spouse, to think positively about their spouse, and to share in enjoyable, engaging activities.

Now, what if those who said they were intensely in love only did so because they wanted to put on a positive front to the person interviewing them? As the study’s authors pointed out, when people talk about their marriages, they generally admit if it isn’t working. So, the idea that these were people pretending to be in love isn’t a likely one.

Research aside, it just intuitively makes sense that not all relationships follow the same long term path. Why would they? Although it is possible that you will be less happy and in love with your partner over time, it is also quite possible that you will enjoy a deeply enriching, loving, passionate, secure connection with someone that is as at least as good (or better!) at 30 years as it is at three months. A relationship’s opportunity to grow to a deeper, more loving and meaningful place happens with time (e.g., 30 years), not with a few initial dates (i.e., three months).  So if you’re with someone who you love deeply, who you like greatly, and who you’re grateful to have in your life, allow yourself to let go of myths that say the good times won’t last. Focus instead on enjoying and savoring each moment.