In the End, Love Prevails

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By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

It was late afternoon. Nell Hamm, 65, and her husband, Jim, 70, were finishing up their 10-mile hike in California's Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park when a mountain lion attacked. The cat had her husband's head in its jaws as it dragged him to the ground. Nell screamed at the beast; she grabbed a log and started beating it on its back; then she slammed the end of the log into the animal's snout. Stunned and bleeding, the lion let Jim go and drifted away.

"We love each other very much. We've been together for 50 years," Nell said in media interviews. "We were fighting for his life, and we fought together like we've done with everything." Ah, love! Ah, 50-year love! As a woman who knows the pain of divorce, I look wistfully at the Hamms as a romantic icon of long-lasting marriage. Thanks to his wife, Jim Hamm survived the attack, which occurred earlier this year.

It's not easy to fight the good fight "together like we've done with everything." Aging poses new challenges for marriage. As the decades go by, the children grow up, the wrinkles get deeper and the libido weaker, will you really be there for better or for worse? How will you fight when the lion attacks -- whether the assault comes in a diagnosis of cancer, the loss of a job or a problem with a grandchild?

As the Beatles put it for a whole generation that now has gray hair: "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?"

For the Hamms, the answer is an obvious yes -- and it turns out that they are not alone. To be sure, "living happily ever after" is more of a fairy tale sentiment than a reality of modern marriage -- after all, nearly half of wedding ceremonies are followed by a divorce procedure. But research is showing that for those who stay in marriages, the best indeed is yet to be. Relationships tend to get better with age; older couples are happier and more satisfied than younger couples.

"Long-lasting love grows. Even unhappy couples get happier if they manage to stay together," says Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Longevity Center at Stanford University. "Young people say, 'I don't want to settle. . . .' Settling is exactly what we need to do."

Most studies of marriage focus on young couples and child-rearing. But researchers are beginning to investigate later-life marriage, and they are discovering the advantage of age in love. An ongoing study of 156 couples at the University of California at Berkeley suggests that older people are better at resolving problems and keeping the flame of attachment alive than younger Romeos and Juliets. Many couples experience a renaissance once they are no longer focused on raising children and getting ahead in the workplace.

"Older couples develop an ability to use positive emotions like affection more effectively, to calm themselves down, to negotiate conflict and to regulate emotions when they get into areas of disagreement," says Berkeley psychologist Robert W. Levenson, who conducted the study with Carstensen and John M. Gottman of the University of Washington.

In this study, couples were divided between those 40 to 50 years old and those 60 to 70. The older couples had been married at least 35 years; the younger ones at least 15 years. Most were white, well-educated and upper-middle-class, reflecting the demographics of the university community of Berkeley. Researchers measured levels of satisfaction of both spouses in areas of potential conflict such as money, children, sex and religion, as well as in areas of pleasure such as spending time with children and grandchildren, socializing with friends and taking vacations.

A preliminary snapshot of the responses showed that "old marriages have reduced potential for conflict and greater potential for pleasure," the initial report concluded in 1993.

Levenson and his colleagues are working on a follow-up study. Will the younger couples, now in their 60s, show the same improvement in satisfaction as the earlier generation of 60-year-olds? The generations are different, one born in the Great Depression, coming of age in World War II and the Eisenhower years; the other shaped by the civil rights movement and the women's movement, Watergate and the Vietnam War -- and rising divorce rates.

Results of the study will be known in about a year. Levenson is betting that the process of aging, which seems to improve relationships, cuts across generational lines.

I hope he's right. It gives us something to look forward to as we grow old. We may not be able to run as fast or hear as well, but we're better at what matters most: love. And this age advantage in loving may also bode well for new unions as well as other significant relationships with friends and family.

But aging by itself can't save all marriages. There has to be some durable connection to begin with. As Levenson cautions: "The basic bone [of a marriage] is revealed when the couple looks across the table and it's just the two of them. If the marriage is a good one," the couple is likely to thrive. "If it's not a good one, they have to reinvent themselves or the marriage will fail."

Comments:mytime@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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