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While love takes a back seat after the honeymoon period and prickly disagreements dominate the early and middle years of marriage, a new study has showed that with age, rancour gives way to humour, acceptance and more tenderness.

The study, led by the University of California-Berkely (UC-B), showed that with age, such positive behaviours as humour and affection increase and negative behaviours such as defensiveness and criticism decrease. 

The results challenge long-held theories that emotions flatten or deteriorate in old age and point instead to an emotionally positive trajectory for long-term married couples.

"Our findings shed light on one of the great paradoxes of late life," said Robert Levenson, psychology professor at UC-B. 

"Despite experiencing the loss of friends and family, older people in stable marriages are relatively happy and experience low rates of depression and anxiety. Marriage has been good for their mental health," he added.

However, wives were found to be more emotionally expressive than their husbands. As they grew older, they tended toward more domineering behaviour and less affection. 

But both middle-aged and older couples, regardless of their satisfaction with their relationship, experienced increases in overall positive emotional behaviours with age, while experiencing a decrease in overall negative emotional behaviours, the researchers noted, in the paper published in the journal Emotion.

"These results provide behavioural evidence that is consistent with research suggesting that, as we age, we become more focused on the positives in our lives," said Alice Verstaen, a postdoctoral fellow at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in the US.

Moreover, "the findings (also) underscore the importance of intimate relationships as people age, and the potential health benefits associated with marriage", she said. 

For the study, the team analysed videotaped conversations between nearly 100 middle-aged and older husbands and wives who had been married for 15 to 35 years, and tracked their emotional interactions over the course of 13 years.