4 min
Older couple eating popcorn

A study looks at how well long-term couples know each other. For older couples, findings reveal there may be some truth to the joke, “How do you tell the married couples in a restaurant? They’re the ones not talking to each other.”

by Seth Eisenberg and Rachel Schindler

A recent study reported in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that long-term couples were less likely to know their mates’ preferences than couples who have been together for just over two years.

To study the influence of relationship length on ability to predict a partner’s preferences, 58 younger (M = 24.1 years) and 20 older (M = 68.7 years) couples made predictions in three domains that varied in daily importance. Researchers found longer relationship length correlated with lower prediction accuracy and greater overconfidence. One explanation of the findings has to do with the false assumption of familiarity in long-term relationships. Another is that for younger couples, their expectations of their partners are different.

Many older couples made a commitment to each other during a period in which the basis of marriage was different than the goals younger couples more typically embrace. For generations, marriage was primarily related to providing security, stability, and an environment to raise children. As women increasingly gained greater freedoms in the last century, along with expanded opportunities to pursue higher education and fulfilling careers, the basis of marriage gradually shifted to meeting each others’ needs for love and intimacy.

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, says women today make up nearly 50 percent of the American workforce, and in almost two thirds of American families women are the primary or co-breadwinner.

Many men in particular, following the examples of their fathers and grandfathers, knew little about skills for confiding, listening with empathy, understanding emotions in themselves or others, or nurturing feelings of love based on a commitment to sustaining pleasure in their closest relationships. As such, their primary relationships often floundered, leading to escalating rates of marital and family breakdown and millions of children growing up in single-parent homes.

Today’s independent women are more likely to want to stay married to a best friend and confidant than remain in a relationship primarily valued for security and stability. Among other things, that means knowing each other’s preferences, being able to confide and be vulnerable, and actively supporting the fulfillment of both individual and shared wishes, hopes and dreams.

In recent years, these understandings have led researchers, behavioral health, education, and public policy makers to invest greater resources making evidence-based relationship and marriage education more widely available. As the impact of marriage and family breakdown, particularly on children, has become more widely understood, public and private collaborations have emerged to deliver research validated approaches to bolster couples in any stage of relationship.

Fortunately, many relationship and marriage education classes that deliver evidence-based skills for improving communication, deepening empathy, constructive conflict resolution, and emotional understanding are making a difference. Studies have shown that couples who spend as little as nine hours in research-validated programs dramatically improve marital satisfaction and resiliency, including how well they know themselves and each other.

Seth Eisenberg is President of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.