A recent study by Linda Bell and Amanda Harsin, appearing in the latest issue of Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, has concluded that certain characteristics of marriage in midlife are associated with better marriages in later life.1
Marital functioning: individuation and connection
Bell and Harsin define marital functioning in terms of a couple’s level of individuation and connection.
Individuation is positively associated with respect, possession of clear personal boundaries, and an environment supportive of autonomy and self-differentiation.
What happens in family systems that are less individuated? In these families conflict is often covert because disagreements and differences of opinion are perceived as threatening.
More individuated families, on the other hand, are more likely to validate feelings, respect individual views, and not feel threatened by differences of opinion.
Like individuation, connection is also a fundamental aspect of human life. Connection processes are related to the biological systems of attachment and caregiving, and stress the importance of affection and warmth, support in the relationship, and an environment that nurtures trust and positive interdependence.
Receiving care and support is associated with feeling secure in the relationship, higher self-esteem, and increased social competence.
Some researchers believe that connection and individuation processes are polar ends of the same continuum; others (including the present study’s authors) believe that the two processes, though complementary, are independent of each others.
See Figure 1, for a summary of the characteristics of individuation and connection.
Source: Arash Emamzadeh (Adapted from Bell & Harsin, 2018, p. 14)
So how do individuation and connection affect the quality of marriage? Are they predictive of marriage functioning years later? These were some of the questions that Bell and Harsin attempted to answer.
Characteristics of the study’s sample
In the current study, Bell and Harsin examined the relationship between marital functioning at midlife and later in life, based on data from interviews with US couples.
The first wave of interviews was conducted in 1975-1976 with 99 White middle-class couples; most of these couples were born during the Great Depression and married after the Second World War.
The wives were between the ages of 38 and 52 (average age 42), and the husbands were between the ages of 38 and 53 (average age 44).
The couples had been married 16+ years and had at least one child (who was an adolescent). About 21% of the wives and 36% of the husbands were college graduates.
Approximately 25 years later (between 2000 and 2002), the researchers contacted the same couples for followup interviews. However, in 9 cases the couples refused to be interviewed, and in another 39 cases the interview was impossible due to death, illness, or separation/divorce. Overall, of those couples that were eligible to participate in the additional interviews, over 80% (42 couples) agreed to do so.
In the final sample, the wives were between the ages of 60 and 80 (average 67), and the husbands were between the ages of 62 and 78 (average 70).
Based on their responses to items from the Family Environment Scale,2 the couples were directed to discuss some of the items on which they disagreed; specifically, they were required to try to reach an agreement. During this period, the couples were alone, though their interaction was being recorded.
The results indicated a significant association between connection and marital functioning, and individuation and marital functioning.
In particular, the researchers found that connection at midlife was associated with support and warmth and better personal boundaries 25 years later; couples with connection at midlife were also less likely to experience depression in later life.
In addition, midlife individuation was related to positive outcomes, such as lower likelihood of conflict (both overt and covert) in later life.
Aside from the influence of individuation/connection, the data also demonstrated that though there were no changes in depression or overt conflict 25 years later, there was an increase in marital functioning in later life: At this time the couples had better boundaries, experienced more support, were more accepting of differences, and experienced less covert conflict.
Bell and Harsin note that their study’s results are consistent with previous research, that marriages in later life function better than ones in midlife.
Given the study’s various limitations (e.g., in study design and sample characteristics), we must be cautious in drawing major conclusions; but the current data suggests that in most cases, midlife marital functioning shows improvement with the passing of years. Furthermore, that individuation and connection at midlife is associated with positive outcomes in later life.
So, the good news it that as the years go by, your midlife marriage is likely to improve in some areas. But this is more likely to be the case for couples who respect each other’s boundaries, support each other’s autonomy, and work hard to create and maintain a warm supportive environment that nurtures confidence and mutual trust.