Happily Married Older Couples Closely Attuned to Partner's Discomfort

Older couples who report high marital satisfaction are strongly attuned to one another’s discomfort, with wives in particular feeling greater levels of distress on the days that their husbands experience more pain, according to a new study at the Yale School of Public Health.

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 suggest that the difference is because wives are generally more attuned and reactive to others’ emotions; whereas happily married husbands may perceive all levels of suffering as equally threatening and their impulse is to protect their partners.

“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 researcher Joan Monin, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health.

“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, the researchers tracked 45 older adults from greater New Haven who had a spouse with a self-reported musculoskeletal condition, such as osteoarthritis or lower back pain. All of the participants were over 50 years old, 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 the participants reported their daily perceptions of their spouse’s physical suffering as well as their response to their spouse’s discomfort.

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

For example, an important goal during intervention for couples coping with chronic conditions is to enhance communication, understanding, and closeness. The findings 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. Based on the current findings, researchers recommend tailoring these interventions differently for husbands and wives.

The findings are published in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.

Source: Yale School of Public Health

 
Elderly couple photo by shutterstock.