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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Yale Finds Happily Married Elderly Couples Closely Attuned to Partner’s Suffering

Spouses who are more satisfied in their marriage usually empathize more with one another. For older couples where one partner experiences discomfort due to a chronic condition, there are often negative psychological consequences for the spouse, but this may vary by gender.


[Photo: Dr. Joan Monin]

Newly published research led by Dr. Joan Monin, assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health, found that for older couples who reported high levels of marital satisfaction, wives experienced heightened distress on days when they perceived that their spouse was experiencing higher-than-average discomfort. Men, meanwhile, who had high marital satisfaction experienced heightened daily distress regardless of what they perceived their spouse’s level of discomfort to be. Researchers speculate that the difference is because wives are generally more attuned and reactive to others’ emotions; whereas husbands with high marital satisfaction may view all levels of suffering as equally threatening and their impulse is to protect their partners.

Senior woman on wheelchair taking her husband's hand.

“These findings provide added insight how older married couples are affected by a partner’s physical discomfort due to a chronic condition on a daily basis ,” said Dr. Monin. “We show that both husbands and wives who are satisfied in their marriage are particularly vulnerable to experience distress in reaction to their partner’s pain, but we also show that husbands and wives are affected differently. Interventions that help couples cope with pain may benefit from understanding these differences and tailoring coping strategies to better meet husbands and wives needs. ”

For the study, Monin and colleagues followed 45 older adults from greater New Haven who had a spouse with a self-reported musculoskeletal condition, such as osteoarthritis or lower back pain. Participants had to be older than 50, married or in a marriage-like relationship living together for at least six months and experiencing on average less pain than their spouse with the musculoskeletal condition.

Participants self-reported their marital satisfaction. Then, for seven days they reported their daily perceptions of their spouse’s physical suffering and their response to their spouse’s discomfort.

The research is believed to be the first longitudinal daily diary study examining the interpersonal effects of physical suffering not limited to pain. The investigators believe the findings have clinical implications for older couples coping with chronic conditions.

An important goal for interventions for couples coping with chronic conditions is to enhance communication, understanding and closeness. Beyond that, researchers suggest tailoring interventions differently for husbands and wives. The findings also highlight the importance of helping couples process their partner’s experience in ways that allow for compassion but minimize personal distress. One technique is Problem Solving Therapy, which helps spouses determine when they can effectively provide support to their partner and when they should take a psychological break to attend to their own needs.

The research paper was published recently in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.