The Shelf Life of Bliss

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marriage doubtsFORGET the proverbial seven-year itch.

Not to disillusion the half million or so June brides and bridegrooms who were just married, but new research suggests that the spark may fizzle within only three years.

Researchers analyzed responses from two sets of married or cohabitating couples: one group was together for one to three years, the other for four to six years.

While the researchers could not pinpoint a precise turning point — the seven-year itch, as popularized in the play and film about errant husbands, was largely a theory — they found distinct differences between the groups.

“We know the earlier ones are happier,” said Prof. Kelly Musick, a University of Southern California sociologist. “The initial boost that marriage seems to provide fades over time.”

Research also showed that the median duration of first marriages that end in divorce remains a little more than seven years, which means that those couples will likely spend more than half their married lives less happy than they were when they cut the first slice of wedding cake.

“Some folks start getting less happy at the wedding reception,” said Larry Bumpass, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who wrote the study with Professor Musick.

Is there a three-year itch?

“There is not necessarily anything magical about year three,” Professor Musick said. “We know that typically when marriages end in divorce, half end before seven or so years and half end after. This is the same idea.”

Their analysis, which included unmarried, cohabitating partners but not gay couples, was based on the National Survey of Families and Households, a national

sample of 9,637 racially diverse households conducted by the University of Wisconsin Center for Demography and Ecology. The research, coupled with a survey released today by the Pew Research Center, provides an intriguing look at an ethereal part of marriage. Everyone knows the first blush of love is the strongest, but measuring how long it will last and whether that bliss is unique to marriage has always fallen more into the category of “here’s what my mother says” than something quantifiable.

In an academic paper they completed last year that analyzed earlier findings from the national surveys, Professors Musick and Bumpass compared responses to questions about how couples described their relationships, how often they fought and over what, and how they would envision their lives if they separated.

The research doesn’t address whether blissful 21st-century relationships are any more or less enduring than they were in the 20th century, so it may be that happy coupledom always came with a three-year expiration date. With nonmarital childbearing more common and women more economically independent, “What’s keeping people together is their love and commitment for each other,” Professor Musick said, “and that’s fragile.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the findings have some foundation.

Bart Blasengame, a 33-year-old freelance writer from Portland, Ore., was with his former fiancée for three years. “I felt like, by year three, we were both forcing it,” he recalled.

“It’s the whole cliché of pursuit,” he said. “Your dates are planned out like some Drew Barrymore romantic comedy with unicorns and rainbows. By year two, we were cruising along, living together, relatively happy. But from a growth standpoint things had started to atrophy. We were happy, content is a better word, but there was no spark.”

But the evolving rules of marriage provide both opportunities and pitfalls, Professor Musick said. “There may be greater potential to find fulfillment in relationships,” she said, “but that possibility and the expectations that come from it may lead to greater disappointment for some” if the expectations aren’t fulfilled.

Her bleak statistical assessment of the durability of enchantment is one of several new findings about relationships and marriage in America. In a word, the State of the Unions is precarious.

Even with the nation’s population increasing, the number of married Americans age 21 to 54 has declined slightly since 2000 — apparently for the first time, as measured by the Census Bureau. In the first decade of the 21st century, the proportion of Americans in every racial and ethnic group who were never married has continued to grow by double digits.

The United States is far from embracing Europe’s postmarriage model or its much higher rates of nonmarital births. Most Americans surveyed this year by the Pew center, in fact, still say marriage is an ideal, if a more elusive one.

While roughly 9 in 10 American adults eventually marry, the time they spend married has declined sharply, in part because they are marrying later and living longer as widows. Moreover, the Pew survey found that 79 percent of Americans say a woman can lead a complete and happy life if she remains single. The comparable figure for men was 67 percent.

While married couples generally say they are more satisfied with their lives, younger adults are far less likely to stigmatize alternatives such as living together and having children out of wedlock, according to the Pew telephone survey of 2,020 adults, which is available at

The Pew survey found that nearly half of Americans in their 30s and 40s have cohabitated. Among all adults, a minority (44 percent) said that living together without getting married was bad for society (only 10 percent said it was a good thing), although the Pew survey concluded that “by providing an alternative to marriage, cohabitation for some appears to diminish rather than strengthen the impulse to legally marry.”

In general, married people are presumed to be happier and better off, but Professor Bumpass, who found that most marriages nowadays are preceded by cohabitation, and Professor Musick questioned whether those benefits were unique to marriage and whether they are stable over time.

“We conclude that the boundaries between marriage and cohabitation may become increasingly blurred,” Professor Musick said.

As for the three-year itch, Byron Lester, a 49-year-old information technology administrator from Bloomfield, Conn., is well suited to consider it. Married three years and two months ago, he said the secret to success is often in the details. “Little things really do mean a lot,” he said.

Mr. Lester said he abandoned his cherished newspaper reading during dinner because that is when his wife most enjoys conversation. “And I think she’s adapted to watching more sports,” he said.

Marriage rates vary widely by race, ethnicity, education, income (63 percent of white women over 18 who make more than $100,000 are married; 25 percent of poor black women are). Soaring divorce rates have leveled off, most experts agree, but one reason may be that the dissolution of live-in relationships are not taken into account.

Raoul Felder, the celebrity divorce lawyer whose favorite aphorism is that marriage is the first step on the road to divorce, says marital longevity has fallen victim to the velocity of our suped-up society.

“We’re all addicted to a television-clicker lifestyle,” he said.

But a dissipation of that all-enveloping rapture is no reason to give up on a relationship, many people insist.

“At times, sure, I’m bored,” said Sean Meehan, 51, a therapist from West Hartford who has been married for 14 years. “Who isn’t? But you talk about it with your spouse and you can switch things up.”

“People are so used to everything being disposable,” he said. “They throw out diapers, lighters, coffee cups, so they can throw out a marriage.”

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the sex adviser, cautioned, too, that the notion of a three-year itch can become self-fulfilling. “How dangerous it is to say something like that,” she said. “From now on, everyone who’s getting married will say it will last three years and then I will have to look for someone else.”

Or, as Paul D. Neuthaler, a divorce mediator in Westchester, said: “The fizzle tends to bubble out within a three- to five-year period when the basis for the marriage was purely physical or related to some attraction not closely associated with each partner’s essential character.”

Another new study, by Prof. Evelyn Lehrer of the University of Illinois at Chicago, contradicts the chestnut that women who marry later are more likely to divorce. She found that with both men and women marrying later than ever, later marriages seem to last longer.

Stephanie Coontz, director of and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families, a research group, said: “We’re getting close to a 180-degree turn in many of the rules about what makes marriage work and not work. The marriages of college-educated couples are becoming more stable.”

Professor Musick is happily married herself — “mostly,” she says — and will celebrate her third anniversary this fall. “My honeymoon,” she mused, “is almost over.”

Whatever the trends, marriage and relationships are in an unusual state of flux, as they were for baby boomers. With so much room to maneuver, younger couples have fewer firm markers to guide them.

In the film “Knocked Up,” Ben beseeches his father for advice after his one-night stand results in a pregnancy.

“I’ve been divorced three times,” his father replies. “Why are you asking me?”


The New York Times
July 1, 2007
Reporting was contributed by Abby Ellin, Carolyn Marshall, Kayleen Schaefer and Stacey Stowe.

Original article