- A new study analyzed data from people in two romantic partnerships to see how their feelings about themselves and their lives change over time.
- The study found that married couples became less satisfied with their lives during the first partnership than those cohabiting or dating.
- It also found that over the course of the first partnership, the women became more depressed and less satisfied than the men.
For people in romantic relationships, how do their feelings about themselves and their lives change over time? If their romantic relationship is a marriage, do they really live happily ever after? What if they are just dating or cohabiting? Suppose the partnership is a new one, formed after a previous one ended—do coupled people do better at relationships over time, after they’ve had some previous romantic relationship experience? Women are supposed to be the romantic relationship specialists, according to our stereotypes. Compared to men, they supposedly feel more and more satisfied with their lives as their relationships progress, and they supposedly enjoy greater boosts to their self-esteem, too. But do they really?
All of those questions and more were addressed in “Subjective well-being across partnerships,” a report published in the June 2021 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology. Matthew D. Johnson of the University of Alberta and two colleagues from Germany, Franz J. Neyer and Christine Finn, analyzed data from a longitudinal study of a nationally representative sample of Germans. For this investigation, the social scientists focused on 554 people who were in two romantic partnerships over the course of the study.
The men and women reported on their satisfaction with their lives, their self-esteem, and their depressive symptoms at four points in time: near the beginning of the first partnership, a year before the first partnership ended, a year after the second partnership began, and later, as the second partnership was progressing.
The partnerships included marriages as well as cohabiting and dating relationships. Only 1 percent were same-sex couples. The first partnership that participants experienced during the study wasn’t necessarily the first romantic relationship in their life. Sixty-four percent had at least one previous romantic relationship.
Do Couples Feel Better About Themselves and Their Lives as Their Relationship Progresses?
First, let’s see what typically happened to people’s feelings about themselves and their lives as their relationships progressed. This first set of findings averages across men and women, younger and older, and people in all kinds of partnerships—marriages, cohabiting relationships, and dating relationship.
Over the course of the first romantic partnership, people felt worse about themselves and their lives. Between the beginning of that relationship and a year before it ended, they felt more depressed and less satisfied with their lives, and their self-esteem suffered, too.
Previous studies have shown that when people first get married, they initially feel more satisfied with their lives—at least among those who get married and stay married. That’s just a honeymoon effect, though—it doesn’t last. Professor Johnson and his colleagues found the same thing when they looked at what happened when people started the second of their romantic partnerships. One year into that second partnership, people felt less depressed and more satisfied with their lives, and they had higher self-esteem than they did a year before their previous partnership ended.
But, over time, all that reversed. After the first year of the second partnership, people started feeling more depressed and less satisfied with their lives, and their self-esteem took a bit of a hit, too. The trajectory was the same as it was for the first partnership—over time, people who were coupled felt worse about themselves and their lives.
Now let’s compare how people felt the last time they were asked about their partnerships (as their second partnership was progressing) to how they felt the first time they were asked, at the beginning of the first partnership. The answer? They were more depressed. Not by a lot, but the effect was statistically meaningful. They were no more satisfied with their lives and their self-esteem was no different.
In short, years into the second partnership, people felt no more satisfied with their lives and no better about themselves than they had when they were first asked about the first partnership. The only difference was that they felt more depressed.
Was It Different for the Women Than for the Men?
Women who were coupled were compared to the men who were coupled in their satisfaction, their self-esteem, and their feelings of depression over the course of their partnerships. Every time there was a difference, it was the women who were doing worse.
On the average, both the men and the women felt worse as their first partnership progressed. But the women lost more. Compared to the men, they felt even less satisfied, less good about themselves, and more depressed from the beginning of the first partnership until the year before it ended.
How did the women and men feel at the end of the study (when the second partnership was progressing), compared to how they felt at the beginning (when the first partnership was beginning)? Again, things had gotten worse for the women. Compared to the men, they felt more depressed, and their self-esteem was lower.
Did Older People Do Better?
When the people in the study were questioned for the first time, the youngest were in their teens and the oldest were 41. Were the older coupled people better protected from the erosion of life satisfaction that typically occurred as romantic relationships progressed? They were not. In fact, the opposite was true. Over the course of the first partnership, the older people became more dissatisfied with their lives than the younger people did. Over the course of the study, from early in the first partnership until the second was progressing, they also became more dissatisfied.
Was Marriage Special?
Back when cohabitation was a lot less common and a lot more controversial, proponents of traditional marriage argued vociferously for the superiority of marriage over what was sometimes called, in all seriousness, “living in sin.” Some are still trying to make the same case.
In this study, people in marriages were compared to people who were cohabiting or just dating. The people who were married did stand out from the others. Over the course of the first partnership, they became even less satisfied with their lives than the people who were cohabiting or dating. Their self-esteem suffered more, too.
Those were the only differences. Comparing how they felt the last time they were asked (as their second partnership was progressing) to how they felt the first time they were asked (near the beginning of their first partnership), people who were married did not differ from the others. They were not any more satisfied with their lives or with themselves and they were not any less depressed.
Have We Been Getting It Wrong About Romantic Relationships—Especially in Women’s Lives?
“Happily ever after” is for fairy tales. Real people in romantic partnerships typically feel worse over time. They feel less satisfied with their relationship and more depressed, and their self-esteem slumps.
When one romantic partnership ends—whether a marriage, a cohabiting relationship or a dating relationship—some people want to start another. When they do, those early days can feel good. On the average, newly re-partnered people feel more satisfied and less depressed, and their self-esteem increases, too. But that doesn’t last. As that new partnership progresses, people typically start to feel less satisfied, more depressed, and less good about themselves. Years into the new romantic relationship, they feel no better about themselves and no happier about their lives than they did at the beginning of the previous partnership. They do, though, feel more depressed. There are no net gains, only the loss of greater depression.
Maybe the greater life experiences of people heading into their 40s, compared to those just entering their 20s, should mean that they know how to ward off the growing dissatisfaction that characterizes the typical unfolding of a romantic relationship. But instead, the older people grow even more dissatisfied than the younger ones.
Stereotypically, it is the women who are supposed to get more out of their marriages and romantic relationships. But again, in this study, just the opposite happened. Over the course of the first partnership, the women became more depressed and less satisfied and experienced more erosion of their self-esteem than the men did. Maybe this should not have been surprising. When I reviewed all sorts of gender differences in living single, living alone, marrying, divorcing, remarrying, widowhood, and living apart from a partner in this previous “Living Single” article, I found many ways in which women seem more drawn to single life and men to married life.
As I try to remember to mention every time I talk about the results of social science research, the findings are based on averages across all of the participants. That means that there are always exceptions to the typical findings, and your own experiences may be among them.
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