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 breakup, 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 lead 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 the 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.
The data analysis yielded a mix of expected and unexpected results. Somewhat surprisingly, the researchers found that reporting high levels of spousal support at Wave 1 was no predictor of mortality at Wave 2. In other words, the notion that having a happy marriage will help you live longer isn’t borne out by these data.
In contrast, the researchers did find the expected result that high levels of marital strain lead to negative health outcomes and early death—but with a twist. When they looked separately at the two components of strain—excessive demands and excessive criticism—they found that only one of these predicted early death.
Participants who reported high demands but low criticism from their spouse were generally still alive at Wave 2. On closer inspection, this makes sense. We may think we want our marriages to be high in support and low in demands. However, people can still be quite happy in their relationships when demand is high as long as support is also high.
Rather, criticism is the real killer in a relationship. That is, participants who reported high levels of criticism in their relationship at Wave 1 had a much higher chance of being dead at Wave 2 than those who reported low levels of criticism.
Bookwala and Gaugler speculated on why constant criticism from your partner is so detrimental to your health. First, it can lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or drinking, as compensatory strategies. Second, such negativity in the relationship also likely leads to increases in long-term stress, known to have detrimental effects on health.
The researchers urge those couples who have fallen into a regular pattern of critical commentary to seek marriage counseling. With the guidance of a skilled therapist, spouses can learn to identify the triggers of negative behavior as well as new ways of responding in these situations.
It’s rarely the case that criticism is one-directional in marriage. This is because the receiver of criticism often responds with criticism in return. In this way, couples fall into a vicious cycle of negative, reactionary behavior.
You can’t change another person, but you can change yourself. So the key then is to recognize the part you play in keeping the vicious cycle of criticism spinning. By responding to your partner’s criticisms in a mindful, non-critical manner, you may see gradual changes in their behavior as well.
Of course, criticism is sometimes unavoidable. There are simply times when you have to be frank about unacceptable aspects of your partner’s behavior. However, the goal here is the “five-to-one rule,” namely the habit of keeping a ratio of at least five positive comments to every negative comment you make. The overwhelming amount of positive communication in the relationship then makes the occasional bitterness easier to swallow.
This is what a marriage counselor will try to teach you. But in the end, it will be up to you and your partner to actually put this into practice.
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Bookwala, J., & Gaugler, T. (2020, May 14). Relationship quality and 5-year mortality risk. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/hea0000883