Perhaps no life events fill us with more joy or sadness than those that involve important relationship partners. Whether we are committing to lifelong partnerships with someone we love, bringing a new addition to the family, leaving a bad relationship, or losing a loved one, relationship events may have different effects on how satisfied and happy we are with our lives.
How do important relationship events impact our well-being over time? In a recent meta-analysis (a research paper that combines results from similar studies), researchers examined this very question. Specifically, they studied how our cognitive and emotional well-being change over time in response to four important life events: marriage, divorce, bereavement, and the birth of a child.1
Cognitive well-being is an evaluation of how satisfied you are with your life, or in a particular domain of your life, whereas emotional well-being refers to positive emotional experiences in the absence of negative emotions. The distinction between these two types of well-being is important, given that they may not always match up perfectly (i.e., you could be happy in one domain but not the other). For instance, if you’ve ever thought that things in your life were going well overall, but still felt unhappy, you’ve experienced differences in the way you thought about your life as compared to how you felt about it.
Thus, how satisfied we are with our lives is not always aligned with how we feel emotionally, and understanding both of these components is essential to fully understanding how relationship events impact our well-being. So how do our cognitive and emotional well-being change in the short- and long-term in response to important relationship events? Here’s what we know:1
After people get married, emotional well-being doesn’t change very much from before marriage. However, marriage does have an important impact on cognitive well-being—in both how generally satisfied people are with their lives as well as in their relationships. Getting married increases people’s life satisfaction, but not relationship satisfaction shortly after marriage. Marital satisfaction and relationship satisfaction (which is particularly high before a marriage) return to baseline levels of satisfaction over time. These changes were consistent for both men and women and couples who married when they were older experienced greater increases in well-being upon getting married.
The long-term impact of divorce indicates people tend to experience mild drops in satisfaction with life immediately after a divorce. However, satisfaction with life then increases over time after these initial declines. Within this meta-analysis, there were few longitudinal studies that were identified that measured satisfaction with life in particular, but other research has indicated that divorce is associated with declines on other measures of well-being, including increased depression, decreased global happiness, and decreased purpose in life.2
Bereavement is one of life’s most negative events, and the results of the meta-analysis indicate this is true in both the short- and the long-term on both aspects of well-being. Losing a spouse is tied to extremely strong drops in both life satisfaction and emotional well-being. However, over time, both life satisfaction and emotional well-being increase. Specifically, increases in well-being do occur after bereavement, but these increases occur more slowly compared to adaptation seen in other relational events. Additionally, drops in well-being tend to be sharper for people who are older when losing a spouse, and men’s well-being recovers slower than women’s after bereavement.
The birth of a child has very divergent effects on people’s sense of emotional and cognitive well-being. After giving birth to a child, life satisfaction, but not relationship satisfaction, increases in the short-term. However, both life and relationship satisfaction decrease over time, with greater declines seen in relationship satisfaction relative to life satisfaction (likely because the addition of a child detracts from time romantic partners can spend together). In contrast, the birth of a child positively impacts emotional well-being over time after childbirth. These changes in well-being were consistent for both men and women and tended to be more positive for parents who were relatively older when having a child.
What we see across these relational events is that, despite the fact that people experience changes in well-being in the short-term, people also tend to adapt over time to these major life events, with changes in cognitive and emotional well-being changing in response to important events but often returning to original—or close to original—levels over time.
Additionally, these findings may help us understand what we may do in anticipation of or as a consequence of variation in our well-being surrounding important relationship events. For instance, as the honeymoon phase begins to drop after marriage, couples may engage in self-expanding activities to keep the romance alive in their relationships (read more here and here). Parents who experience declines in life satisfaction after the birth of a child may recognize the emotional joy that parenthood brings. In times of divorce or bereavement, people may seek social support from close friends and family to buffer the negative effects of well-being in these difficult times. Lastly, in times of drops of well-being due to relational events, people may also find solace in knowing that returning to relatively greater well-being may just be a function of time.
1Luhmann, M., Hofmann, W., Eid, M., & Lucas, R. E. (2012). Subjective well-being and adaptation to life events: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 592-615. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0025948
2Marks, N. F., & Lambert, J. D. (1998). Marital status continuity and change among young and midlife adults. Journal of Family Issues, 19(6), 652-686.
Bonnie Le, M. A. – University of Toronto | Website/CV
Bonnie’s research focuses on the factors associated with prosociality and well-being in parent-child, romantic, and interracial relationships. Specifically, she examines behaviors such as caregiving and sacrifice and how they influence well-being by investigating the types of motivations, emotions, and physiological responses associated with these behaviors across relationships.