Caroline Tan

According to a recent study conducted by professors from the Yale School of Public Health and University of Texas at Dallas, both elderly partners in a happy marriage experience more stress than members of unhappy couples of ages older than 50, although the source and level of the stress differ between husband and wife.

The research paper studied how spouses with partners who have arthritis and lower back pain deal with the distress that come from their partners’ physical pain. The research found that the happier the marriage is, the more vulnerable elderly couples are to distress about their spouses’ physical pain. However, gender influences how each partner reacts to the physical pain of the other and whether their stress is directly related to that pain.

Epidemiology professor and study co-author Joan Monin, along with her colleagues, epidemiology professor Becca Levy and University of Texas at Dallas professor Heidi Kane surveyed 45 elderly couples in the New Haven community. Researchers asked participants to self-report their stress level over the course of seven days. They found that stress levels were higher in marriages that were reported as harmonious. But in general, the male partner in a happily married couple experienced more stress regardless of his partner’s health conditions, while the stress level of the female partner rose when she thought that her husband was in pain.

“I thought that [the] wives would stress more … because women are generally more attentive to emotions,” Monin said. “But I didn’t expect older husbands to be more distressed on a daily basis.”

Monin said the consistent distress of the husband might originate from his uncertainty about what actions to take when his spouse experiences pain. Another source of the distress might be the husband’s unwillingness to see his partner in pain, but further research is required to confirm these hypotheses, Monin pointed out.

Monin said the research may help couples who are close to each other feel more compassionate about their partners without increasing their own stress. She added that the research could lead to new approaches that people can use to deal with stress, such as problem-solving therapy and regulation of emotions as a couple.

“There has been a lot of work on negative emotion contagion. There’s still work [to be done] on caregiving.” Monin said.

Environmental health professor Martin Slade SPH ’01, whose research focuses on people’s perception of stereotypes and how it affects the actual aging process, said that the studies he has conducted record participant’s marital status. He added that his research found that people who generally have more negative perceptions of the aging process would live shorter lives than those who have more positive perceptions.

Monin emphasized that future research could focus on helping older husbands reduce their stress level. Since the stress of the wives is more dependent on the pain of their husbands, improving mental and physical health on the male side would improve the general happiness on both sides.

The study, named “To Love is To Suffer,” was accepted by the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences on July 5, 2015.