Another predictor of successful marriages, Umberson says, is the quality of a couple's childhood relationship with their parents. "The kind of relationships you have with your parents growing up are predictive of marital quality in adulthood," she says. Further, they're "predictive of the quality of all relationships in general."
Finally, there is a chicken-and-egg component to successful marriages. "People who are married are happier than people who aren't," Cherlin says. "The question is how much of this is cause and how much is effect?" While natural selection surely has an impact here, Cherlin says, "people who are inherently happy are more likely to get married, but marriage makes them even healthier."
Another reality of marriage, which social scientists have documented over and over, is that the honeymoon does end, and the amount of happiness produced within a marriage peaks in its early years and commences a steady decline. Forget Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn frolicking on a golden pond. "The decline is probably the greatest in the first few years of marriage," Umberson says. "But from the data, there's never a period when there's an upturn."
This reality of marriage, she and others say, may be one of the most important and practical lessons people should keep in mind at all stages of their marriage. "I think it's actually useful for couples to know that it's normal for there to be ups and downs over time in the quality of a relationship," Umberson explains. "You just can't sustain the highs" of that honeymoon period, and expecting otherwise can place enormous strain on the relationship.
People should also pay a lot of attention before they get married to whether they have a mutually supportive relationship, Simon says. "People should not take this for granted" and maintaining such a relationship "takes work," she says.
The key to good marriages is similar in Umberson's view. "I think it's the presence of emotional support, and that the person you're with does make you feel emotionally supported," she says. On the other hand, "If your partner is critical and demanding" all the time, those "are just red flags" in terms of marital happiness. And in terms of stress, she notes, "marital strain is worse for your health than marital happiness is good for your health."
Umberson concludes that she has conducted research on couples that were happily married for a long time. One common characteristic of many of these marriages was the willingness of each spouse to simply accept "each other for what they are." That's a lesson for the newly and long-married alike.