How Does Being a Newlywed Affect Personality?

New research into personality changes in newlyweds yields surprising results.

Posted Jun 11, 2018

 “Do not seek for the best partner, but seek for the person who makes you a better version of yourself.”  Abhijit Naskar

Though we tend to think of personality as something fixed and permanent, it does change over time, often as a result of the various life transitions that occur as we go from being children to taking on adult roles.  According to research looking at the social investment principle, personality can change depending on how invested we are in new roles that we take on over time, whether this involves a new career or a new relationship. 

And one of the most important of these life transitions occurs when people get married for the first time.  For newlyweds in particular, making that shift from single status to a new role as a spouse with all the responsibilities that go with that role can be a sobering experience.  As a result, it's hardly surprising that many married couples find the first few months or years of marriage to be fairly rocky as the expectation of wedded bliss giving way to a more realistic view of what  married life can mean.

To make this new relationship work, men and women often find themselves making compromises and generally changing long-established patterns of thinking and behaving.   But do these changes also mean changes in basic personality traits?  While numerous studies have already been carried out looking at personality differences between married couples and their single or divorced counterparts, actual research into the kind of personality changes that can occur in the early stages of marriage has been relatively scarce up to now.

About the only consistent finding in the literature on marriage and personality deals with what has been called the "honeymoon-is-over" effect. This suggests that relationship satisfaction is highest during the "honeymoon period" covering the first few years of marriage and that then goes into a decline over time.  Since marital satisfaction is also linked to personality traits such as neuroticism, this suggests that personality also changes in couples that become more dissatisfied with their marital situation. Again though, those studies that look at marriage and personality usually focus on fixed personality traits instead of how they might change over time.  

But a new research study published in the journal Developmental Psychology may help answer some of the questions surrounding personality changes in marriage and what this might mean for relationship success. A team of researchers led by Justin Lavner of the University of Georgia examined 169 heterosexual newlywed couples who agreed to participate in the study.  All participants were residents of northern Florida (the average age for males was 25.6 years and 23.4 years for females). 

During the initial assessment session that took place during the first six months of marriage, participants completed questionnaires measuring marital satisfaction and the Big Five personality traits: (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism).  To prevent potential contamination, all participants completed the questionnaires on their own without sharing results with their partners. They were then contacted six months after the first assessment (Time 2), and then twelve months afterward (Time 3) with the same questionnaires given each time.

What the researchers found was that both husbands and wives showed significant personality changes during the first 18 months of marriage. For both husbands and wives, agreeableness declined overall. Husbands alone showed a significant drop in extraversion and a rise in conscientiousness while wives showed a significant drop in both openness and neuroticism. Still, these personality changes varied widely across participants while demographic factors such as age, level of income or education, or ethnic background didn't appear to play a significant role. 

In looking at relationship history, the researchers found that premarital relationship duration (how long the couple knew each other before marriage) didn't appear to have an impact on level of personality change.  On the other hand, premarital cohabitation (whether the couple lived together before marriage) was linked to lower levels of neuroticism in wives and that their personality traits remained more stable over time.

Interestingly enough, while level of satisfaction dropped for both husbands and wives over time,  husbands who scored higher on conscientiousness and wives who scored lower in neuroticism during the first assessment period reported higher levels of marital satisfaction as well.  Also, for those couples who became parents during the second and third wave of the study, no personality changes linked to parenthood alone were found.  

Though the authors noted some limitations in the study, including not having a control group of unmarried participants, these results help demonstrate the impact that the first few years of marriage can have on personality.  While the "honeymoon phase" of a marriage is traditionally seen as happy, it can also be an extremely difficult transition period requiring enormous adjustment for both partners.   

Along with changes in living arrangements, marriage means learning to share emotions, finances, and family networks in a way that many newlyweds may find themselves ill-prepared to handle.    How both personality and marital satisfaction change with time may be crucial in predicting whether a marriage will succeed or fail.

Much more research is certainly needed, especially in  looking at whether similar results can be found in same-sex marriages or for couples who have been married previously.  Still, as we come to understand more about the relationship between marriage and personality, it may be possible to develop better ways of increasing relationship satisfaction and prevent the kind of problems that can doom a marriage.

References

Lavner, Justin A.,Weiss, Brandon,Miller, Joshua D.,Karney, Benjamin R.  Personality change among newlyweds: Patterns, predictors, and associations with marital satisfaction over time. Developmental Psychology, Vol 54(6), Jun 2018, 1172-1185

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