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Are You Married But Lonely?

How marriage partners grow together or apart over the years

We humans are a highly social species, and we need deep emotional relationships with others to flourish in life. In adulthood, most of us turn to our spouses to meet the bulk of our companionship and intimacy needs. While we hope that our spouse will be our best friend—even our soulmate—all too often husbands and wives drift apart and experience high levels of loneliness in their marriage. In fact, previous research shows that about a third of all older married persons report feeling lonely often.

Until now, psychologists have mainly focused on the dynamics within the marriage to explain loneliness among older married couples. From this perspective, two possible explanations have been proposed. First, it could be that the shared circumstances of the marriage lead to loneliness. For instance, friends and family members may move away or die, depriving the elderly couple of the social contacts they once had. Second, it could be that lonely people tend to marry other lonely people, leading to a lifelong pattern of social isolation for the couple.

In a recent article, however, Montclair State University psychologist Ashley Ermer and colleagues look beyond the spousal relationship to the larger social network of family and friends to see how these affect the perception of loneliness in marriage. They also explored how reported loneliness in married couples changes over time.

For this study, the researchers sampled nearly 1,400 heterosexual married couples in their fifties through seventies who remained married for the entire eight-year span of the study. The sample was representative of the national population in terms of race and ethnicity. Both partners responded to an extensive survey on three occasions, once in 2006, again in 2010, and a final time in 2014.

The survey posed questions intended to measure a number of variables of interest to the researchers. The first set of questions gathered basic demographic information, such as age, race, ethnicity, and income. They also reported how lonely they felt.

The second set of questions assessed the quality of their social relationships, in particular looking at support and strain in friendships, family, and the marriage itself. Questions such as “How much can you rely on them if you have a serious problem?” measured support, while questions like “How often do they make too many demands on you?” assessed strain. Respondents were also asked how close they felt to their spouse.

The third set of questions measured the quantity of social relationships. For example, respondents were asked to estimate the number of people in their close social network. They also indicated how frequently they met with family members and friends.

The analysis of this large data set was complex, but a few interesting trends emerged. First, the data show that quality is far more important than quantity when it comes to abating loneliness. This finding is consistent with the general findings in the field that you only need a few meaningful relationships in life to be happy.

A second trend in these data, however, contradicted the general belief that older couples grow lonely or happy together. In fact, Ermer and colleagues found that husbands’ and wives’ levels of loneliness were not strongly correlated. That is, they found little evidence that lonely people other marry lonely people. Nor did they found strong evidence that couples’ feelings of loneliness grew more similar over time.

Furthermore, they found that friendships were more important than family relationships in reducing loneliness. After all, family relationships are obligatory, so we have to put up with them even when there’s a lot of negativity. Friendships, in contrast, can be severed if they prove to be more of a burden than a benefit.

The researchers also found that levels of loneliness did change over time for many of the respondents. However, the reasons for these changes were different for husbands and wives. In this respect, three findings were particularly interesting.

First, the wife’s level of loneliness at the first measurement predicted loneliness for both herself and her husband at the second two measurements. However, the husband’s initial level of loneliness was no indicator of how either of them would feel later on. This finding is consistent with the general observation that it is the wife who sets the emotional tone of the marriage.

In other words, the husband depends on the wife to create and maintain the external social relationships of the marriage. If she has many friends, he’ll likely be friends with their husbands. But if she’s socially isolated, he will be too.

Second, the husband’s loneliness in later marriage was predicted by his perceived level of marital strain. While he felt more positive than negative interactions with his wife, he also felt less loneliness, likely because he could depend on her to maintain their social network. But when marital strain was high, this was no longer the case, and so his loneliness increased.

Third, the wife’s loneliness in later marriage was predicted by the number of friends she had, not by the quality of her marriage. This suggests that women in high-strain marriages can still find overall happiness in life if they have a strong network of caring friends. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case for men, who tend to be much more dependent on their wives for meeting their companionship and intimacy needs than their spouses are.

These findings provide suggestions for how marriages counselors should work with couples reporting high levels of loneliness. But they also suggests things that husbands and wives can work on to reduce loneliness and improve marital quality in general.

For instance, wives should keep in mind that their husbands rely heavily on them for building and maintaining the social network that they both share. And for their part, husbands can reduce marital strain by yielding more often to their wives’ requests, with the understanding that they benefit from keeping their wives happy. In sum, focusing on the positive aspects of the relationship is the best way to avoid growing lonely together in old age.

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Ermer, A. E., Segel-Karpas, D., & Benson, J. J. (2020, March 19). Loneliness trajectories and correlates of social connections among older adult married couples. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication.