February is the traditional month when spouses, and committed couples, express their appreciation for each other. It’s also a good time for them to consider the influence they have on each other’s well-being.
First, some good news. Statistics show that married people live longer on average, have a lower rate of depression, are more likely to survive a heart attack, and have a better outcome after hospitalization. Spouses can serve as cheerleaders for each other, each urging the other to take care of themselves. They have a higher rate of compliance with their healthcare provider’s recommendations as they remind—dare we say nag?—each other to make and keep healthcare appointments and to take medications. (Note: In this article, we are using the term “spouse,” but most of these studies pertain to committed couples, as well.)
Yet a number of recent studies about the effect of marital dynamics on health show that when it comes to the connection between health and marriage … it’s complicated!
If one partner cooks healthy meals, the other is likely to join them in the nutritious repast, rather than subsisting on junk food. If one spouse is smoking, drinking too much, or engaging in other risky behavior, the other might step in to get them back on track. If one spouse is active and engaged in the community, the other often follows along. Yet the effect could go the other way. Couples tend to mirror each other’s moods. “If your partner is depressed and wants to spend the evening eating chips in front of the TV, that’s how your evening will probably end up looking, as well,” notes sociologist Olga Stavrova, Ph.D.
Stavrova, who is an assistant professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, conducted a study on this effect and arrived at a surprising conclusion. Psychologists know that people who feel happy tend to be healthier—but Stavrova’s study revealed that the happiness of our spouse might be an even more important factor! This supports the adage “happy wife, happy life,” and the effect goes for contented husbands, as well.
Optimism is another beneficial personality trait—and a study from Michigan State University found that people who are optimistic also contribute to the health of their spouse. The study authors note, “Across the board, everyone benefits from a healthy dose of optimism from their partner. For the glass-is-half-empty people, a partner can still quench their thirst. For the glass-is-half-full people? Their cup runneth over.” Study author William Chopik explains, “There’s a sense where optimists lead by example, and their partners follow their lead.”
Other research shows that married people are less likely to experience stress, loneliness and depression, even today, when social connections can be precious and few. Couples can serve as stress busters for each other—as the saying goes, they can be each other’s “soft place to land,” offering a sympathetic ear and comforting words that reduce harmful stress hormones in the body.
But the quality of the marriage matters. Marital strife and dissatisfaction can be very stressful! Research shows that people in troubled marriages have increased inflammation, depression and other health problems. “Marital stress is a particularly potent stress, because your partner is typically your primary support and in a troubled marriage your partner becomes your major source of stress,” said Ohio State University researcher Janice Kiecolt-Glaser.
These studies provide a good reminder that at every age, it’s important to nurture and care for the marriage. Marriage counselors are reporting an uptick in partners seeking couples therapy at this time—and we’re never too old to work on our most important relationship by addressing conflicts (even those of long duration) and learning more effective ways to communicate.
“In sickness and in health”
With age comes an increased risk of illness and disability, and a greater likelihood that one spouse will be providing care for the other. When a senior is living with heart disease, arthritis, dementia, the effects of a stroke, or another disabling condition, having a spouse to help is an advantage. Caregiver spouses help keep track of their partner’s doctor appointments, medications and other health routines, and lower their loved one’s risk of isolation and depression.
But in the process, they may put their own health at risk. They may spend so much time on their spouse’s care that they neglect their own health regimen. If adult children and other family members try to help, the couple might resist what they perceive as intrusion.
Bringing in professional in-home care is often a good solution. Having care assistance from a professional rather than from adult children or other family members can preserve the couple’s sense of control and dignity, while allowing them to focus on their relationship and continue to do things they enjoy.
One final note
It’s important to know that many of the advantages of couplehood also can be gained from other supportive relationships. Today many people are choosing the single life, while nurturing other family relationships and self-chosen family structures. These connections—among friends, in a neighborhood, even community-wide—allow people to have a positive influence on each other’s health, just as we are seeing now during the pandemic as people model safe behavior and encourage others to do so.