London - Married couples who make it to 20 years together are happier than when they first wed, according to researchers.
These couples are likely to have put their romantic fantasies to one side and developed a "marital resilience" and "contentment", the experts said.
They spend increased time doing activities together, often more than when they were newlyweds, they added.
US researchers examined 20 years of data from 2 034 married people, with an average age of 35 for wives and 37 for husbands. A fifth had been married for less than five years, a fifth for more than 15 years and the rest for between five and ten years.
Predictably, they found that those who ended up getting divorced reported frequent quarrels, which eventually eroded happiness and led to them spending less and less time together. In contrast, those who stuck together managed to develop "marital resilience" and were able to resolve the disagreements of the early years of their union and go forward and improve their relationship.
Researchers Paul Amato, of Pennsylvania University, and Spencer James, of Brigham Young University in Utah, said: "Although divorce is common these days, about half of all marriages last a lifetime and the long-term outlook for most of these marriages is upbeat, with happiness and interaction remaining high, and discord declining."
After many years together, couples experienced "even deeper levels of appreciation, closeness and contentment", they said. Their findings challenge the widespread stereotype, corroborated in earlier studies, that the best couples in long-term marriages can hope for is a relationship devoid of happiness, where husbands and wives are largely indifferent to each other.
Harry Benson, research director at the Marriage Foundation, a British charity set up to confront family breakdown, told The Sunday Times: "In fiction, all of us have seen couples sitting in stony silence in restaurants, resigned to what looks like a dry and lifeless marriage. It’s a depressing and misleading stereotype that sitcoms like to portray.
"Until now researchers have generally agreed that marriages start well but thereafter drift into terminal decline. Only it’s a complete myth."
The study found that a couple’s happiness was not affected by class or education boundaries, although divorce rates did tend to be lower for university graduates. The research also found that marriage was more beneficial for men, with wives reporting more marital woes and unhappiness than their husbands.