Marriages, like wines, could get better with age - only children had better get out of the way. At least that seems to be the case in the US.
A UC Berkeley study says that marriage gets better after the children grow up and move out. The study analysed the marital satisfaction of more than 100 women over 18 years.
The study, titled "Contextualizing Change in Marital Satisfaction During Middle Age," was published in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science.
The study by three professors from UC Berkeley's department of psychology and Institute of Personality & Social Research questioned the women at the average ages of 43 in 1981, 52 in 1989 and 61 in 1998 and found that marriages grew increasingly better after the kids packed up and left.
"We found that marital satisfaction increased as the women transitioned to an empty nest," said Sara Gorchoff, one of the authors of the study and a doctoral candidate in the psychology department. "It was not that they spent more time with their partners but that they were better enjoying the time they spent with their partners."
Though the women in the study were not named, several other Bay Area mothers shared similar views.
Terry Toczynski, a 55-year-old mother of three, said she noticed an improvement in her marriage when her three children went off to school. They were gone for about a year before one of them temporarily moved back recently.
"In the time they weren't there, we didn't have to focus 100 percent on raising children, and it was definitely better for us," the Berkeley woman said. "We were a couple again; two individuals who chose to live together and be with each other.
"At first, it is very quiet, but there is a lot of good in the lack of noise. We got good at having conversations. Our time is about us."
The 123 women in the study were born between 1937 and 1939 and were first questioned for a study on creativity while they were seniors at Mills College in Oakland. Since then, they have participated in numerous studies, including one on the effect of the women's movement.
"We realized what an opportunity we had to study these women over the years," said Gorchoff, who conducted the study with psychology Professors Oliver John and Ravenna Helson.
Though all the women attended college, they chose different career paths and had varying income levels and numbers of children. Their martial status varied as well.
Some changed partners, some didn't. Whatever the case, the study showed that they all reported becoming more satisfied when their children moved away from home.
"The increase was not at all dependent on whether they remarried," Gorchoff said. "And the women did not report that the general global satisfaction with their lives got better, just their marriages. They were enjoying the time with their partners more."
Shahla Piff, 59, of San Bruno said she initially felt like her purpose in life was gone when her two sons moved out about six years ago but soon realized her marriage was growing stronger.
"We had time to pay attention to each other," said Piff, whose sons are 26 and 28. "The boys were taking a lot of our attention and energy. When they left, we could behave like adults. We could do fun stuff, like travel and go to art shows.
"It gives us more time to focus on each other and our interests."
Marriages improved with age overall, according to the study, but women who experienced the transition to an empty nest were happier with their mates than women with children in the home and women whose children had been gone for a while.
The first survey was done when most of the women still had children at home, the second when some of them still had kids at home, and the third when most kids were gone. All were in middle age during the first survey. Some got married, some raised kids, some were divorced, some remarried and some were in domestic partnerships.
The women rated how satisfied they were in their relationships using a five-point scale.
"The transition to an empty nest may be associated with an increase in the quantity of time and energy invested in one's marriage, an increase in the quality of time spent with one's partner and with perceptions of one's child's success," the study said.
Not everyone agrees. Barbara Lockwood, a 58-year-old Brookdale (Santa Cruz County) woman whose sons left home in 1998, said her marriage has remained pretty much the same.