Nagging Your Spouse to Death

June 16, 2020

Plenty of research shows that marriage is good for you. People who are married are generally happier, healthier, and lead longer lives than their unmarried counterparts. This is true for adults of all ages, but it may especially be important as we grow old to have a supportive partner.

Most people rate their marriages as reasonably satisfying, and this fact alone helps accounts for the general finding that being married yields mostly positive outcomes. But what about people who find themselves stuck in an unhappy marriage?

Young couples can break up and start over again with a new relationship. However, older adults usually don’t have that option. First, the pool of available alternatives shrinks rapidly as we pass from middle age to the senior years, so if there is a break up, the prospects of starting over with a new partner are slim. Second, long-married couples are bound by a web of relational and economic ties that are difficult to sever. How do you deal with the kids and grandkids? Who gets the house and other property you’ve jointly accumulated over the years?

In the end, of course, we all die, but the challenge in life is to delay that outcome for as long as possible. Plenty of research shows that having a social network of supportive relationships is one key to a long and happy life. Presumably, then, a happy marriage in old age should also help us live longer.

But less is known about the outcomes of seniors in unhappy marriages. Might the strain and lack of support led these unfortunate people to an early grave? This is the question that Lafayette College (Pennsylvania) researchers Jamila Bookwala and Trent Gaugler explored in a study recently published in the journal Health Psychology.

Bookwala and Gaugler made use of data from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, which interviewed over 3000 older adults at two time periods, Wave 1 in 2005-2006 and Wave 2 in 2010-2011. Of these, the researchers looked at the 1,734 participants who had been married, cohabiting, or otherwise in a committed intimate relationship at Wave 1. And then at Wave 2, they looked to see who were still alive, and who had died.

At Wave 1, participants answered questions about the quality of their relationship with their partner. Psychologists often conceptualize relationship satisfaction as ranging along a single dimension from “very satisfied” to “very unsatisfied.”

However, as Bookwala and Gaugler point out, relationship satisfaction is based on two separate aspects of marriage. The first aspect is support—generally speaking, the more support your spouse gives you, the more satisfied you are with the relationship. The second aspect is strain, which can involve either excessive demands or excessive criticism.

At Wave 1, participants had responded to questions about levels of support, demands, and criticism in their relationship. They also responded to questions about number of family and friendship relations as well as the level of support and strain in each of these. Thus, Bookwala and Gaugler could correlate each of these items to mortality five years later.

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