Marriage changes us – there’s no question about that but does it make us happier? I always find stats on relationships really interesting. Society portrays the happily ever after images through the media and this can set us up to have unrealistic expectations.
When the researchers analyzed the data after 18 months of marriage, they found the following trends in personality change among the husbands and wives:
- Openness. Wives showed decreases in openness. Perhaps this change reflects their acceptance of the routines of marriage.
- Conscientiousness. Husbands increased significantly in conscientiousness, whereas wives stayed the same. The researchers noted that women tend to be higher in conscientiousness than men, and this was the case with the husbands and wives in this study. The increase in conscientiousness for men probably reflects their learning the importance of being dependable and responsible in marriage.
- Extraversion. Husbands became more introverted (lower in extraversion) over the first year and a half of marriage. Other research has shown that married couples tend to restrict their social networks compared to when they were single. This drop in extraversion probably reflects that trend.
- Agreeableness. Both husbands and wives became less agreeable over the course of the study, but this downward trend is especially noticeable for the wives. In general, women tend to be more agreeable than men. This data suggests that these wives were learning to assert themselves more during the early years of marriage.
- Neuroticism. Husbands showed a slight (but not statistically significant) increase in emotional stability. The wives showed a much greater one. In general, women tend to report higher levels of neuroticism (or emotional instability) than men. It’s easy to speculate that the commitment of marriage had a positive effect on the wives’ emotional stability.
It probably comes as no surprise that marital satisfaction went downhill for both husbands and wives over the course of the study. By 18 months, the honeymoon was clearly over. However, the researchers did find that certain personality traits in husbands or wives predicted how much their marital satisfaction decreased.
- Husbands who were high in openness at the start of the marriage showed little change in marital satisfaction, while those who were low in openness experienced the greatest drop in conjugal bliss. Perhaps high-openness husbands found ways to keep the relationship exciting.
- Wives who were low in neuroticism at the beginning also showed little change in marital satisfaction, while those who were high in neuroticism were much less happy after 18 months. This makes sense, since low neuroticism means living life on an even keel. Meanwhile, the high-neuroticism wives probably experienced an upward swing in positive mood around their wedding day with a return to a normal, less happy state afterwards.
- Likewise, husbands whose wives were low in neuroticism remained happy in their marriages after a year and a half. No doubt the emotional stability of their wives provided a stable base for these husbands.
With correlational data like this, it’s impossible to say that getting married caused these changes in personality. Most of the couples in this study were in their 20s, a time when other major life changes were occurring as well — you mature, start a career, and have children, all of which could affect your personality. So the researchers also tested whether the following variables could predict the personality changes they observed.
- Age: Those who married later showed similar personality changes to those who married younger. This suggests that maturity isn’t the only explanation for a personality change.
- Cohabitation before marriage: Those who cohabited before marriage showed the same personality changes as those who only started living together after marriage — with one exception. Women who cohabited with their future husbands before marriage exhibited low levels of neuroticism at the beginning of the marriage, and this emotional stability endured throughout the course of the study. Two possible explanations come to mind: 1) The period of cohabitation helped these women become more emotionally stable, so they were better prepared for married life; and 2) men ditched the girlfriends they were living with if they found them to be emotionally unstable, but committed to marriage otherwise.
- Parenthood: Some of the couples in the study became parents during the time period of observation. However, they didn’t differ significantly in their changes in personality compared with those who didn’t become parents. While parenting is definitely a stressful and life-changing event, it doesn’t affect personality in the way that getting married does.
Since none of these variables account for the data, the researchers maintain it’s likely that getting married is the cause of the personality changes they observed. These changes probably involve responses to the repetitive demands of a committed relationship. While they may not keep the flames of passion ablaze, they probably do reflect adjustments husbands and wives make as they negotiate patterns of behavior that will make their marriages sustainable.
If you’re thinking of getting married, you can expect your partner to change, but maybe not in ways you were expecting. Still, the best predictor of whether a marriage will thrive is the personalities of the two partners as they enter into the relationship. Happy, emotionally stable couples make for happy, emotionally satisfying marriages. But when partners bring emotional baggage into the relationship, the journey is likely to be bumpy.
Lavner, J. A., Weiss, B., Miller, J. D., & Karney, B. R. (2017, December 18). Personality Change Among Newlyweds: Patterns, Predictors, and Associations With Marital Satisfaction Over Time. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000491