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The importance of long-term marriage for health and happiness

Each year around Valentine’s Day, a new crop of romantic comedies hit the silver screen. Viewers wait in anticipation for the on-screen couple’s first kiss, or the enviably lavish wedding. But what happens to that couple, many decades after the first kiss or exchange of rings? Recent research shows that long-married couples exchange love and emotional support, but also regularly engage in spats or minor conflicts which affect older adults’ health in both expected and surprising ways.

In recent years, research has flourished on long-married couples, with attention to the complex ways that marital support and strain affect both partners’ health, happiness, and even cognitive functioning. Due in part to the collection of large sample survey data sets that obtain information from husbands and wives over time, researchers are moving away from studies that focus on just one partner’s appraisal of the marriage, and instead look at the ways both partners’ marital experiences affect their own and one another’s health.

A special section of Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences recently featured three studies that explored linkages between marital quality and health. The first study showed that supportive marriage is an important resource that protects against poor health, disability and functional limitations in later life. Choi, Yorgason and Johnson examined changes in marital quality and health among couples in their 50s and older, based on data from the Health and Retirement Study. They found that over a four-year period, increases in marital quality were linked with improvements in self-rated health and declines in disability. They also found that increases in positive aspects of marriage, such as feeling loved and supported by one’s partner, led to declines in disability and functional limitations of the other partner, such as difficulties getting up out of a chair. Why would having a happy and satisfied spouse improve our own physical health? The results suggest that a spouse who feels loved and supported may enhance the other spouse’s sense of competence as a husband or wife. Knowing one’s relevance and value in the significant other’s life may also bolster physical well-being.

When researchers expand their foci to include psychological health, including daily feelings of frustration, worry, and sadness, they find similarly that one partner’s marital happiness may affect the other partner’s mood, but in surprising ways. Carr, Cornman and Freedman explored how older husbands’ and wives’ feelings of marital support and strain affected both their own and their spouses’ daily mood. Using daily diary data from the Disability and Use of Time study, they found that wives reported high levels of frustration when their husbands reported strain in the marriage; unhappily married men may create frustration for their wives, or alternatively, frustrated wives may criticize their husbands, undermining the men’s happiness with the marriage. Surprisingly, though, when wives reported high levels of marital support, their husbands reported higher levels of frustration, perhaps because the help they exchanged undermined husbands’ feelings of autonomy or competence.

While Carr and colleagues showed the potentially troubling aspects of high marital support, a third study found surprising protective effects of marital strain for older adults’ cognitive health. The research team of Xu, Thomas and Umberson explored whether negative and positive interactions in marriage were associated with one’s cognitive limitations over time. Using data from the Americans’ Changing Lives (ACL) study, they discovered a surprising finding: husbands and wives who reported higher levels of strain in the marriage went on to have slower increases in cognitive limitations. What would explain this curious finding? The authors suggest that marital strain can be protective, as these strains may come in the form of nudging one another to take better care of their health. In other cases, the demanding situations or verbal sparring that accompany marital conflicts may sharpen the spouses’ attention, reasoning, and speed of processing – the core components of cognitive functioning in later life.

In the movies, romantic relationships are portrayed as all hearts and flowers. Yet mature couples who have stayed married for four or five decades find that love encompasses both supportive moments and moments of strain and scolding. Strain and support are not opposite sides of the coin, but are tightly interwoven components of long-term marriages that may bolster (or threaten) older adults’ physical, emotional, and cognitive health in complex ways.

Image Credit: Old People, Elderly Couple, Rain by marmax. Public Domain via Pixabay.


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