Marital Relationships

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A stable and satisfying marriage can provide an important source of emotional and instrumental support throughout adulthood, and is associated with increased economic well-being, mental health, and physical health. Some of these apparent benefits of marriage may result from improved health behaviors among married people, care and monitoring provided by a spouse, or by selection of the healthiest, happiest, and most economically secure men and women into stable marriages in the first place. Although the exact nature of processes producing these positive outcomes is not well understood, marriage is associated with important benefits for older Americans.

Gender differences in marriage

The experience of marriage in later life differs substantially by gender. Indeed, a larger proportion of older men than women are married, reflecting the tendency for women to marry men somewhat older than themselves, gender differences in rates of remarriage after divorce or widowhood, as well as gender differences in longevity. While approximately 77 percent of men age sixty-five to seventy-four were living with a spouse in 1999, the same was true for only 53 percent of similarly aged women (Smith and Tillipman). In addition to gender differences in the level of marriage, research points to important differences in the character of marital relationships in later life. For example, some research suggests that older husbands are more likely to name their spouse as a primary confidant, and less likely to name someone other than their spouse as a confidant, than are older wives. These results suggest that men may be relatively more dependent on marriage for interpersonal involvement and intimacy in later life than are women (Tower and Kasl). Older women, however, tend to be more economically dependent on the marital relationship than are their husbands. This gender difference in economic dependency is likely to decline for subsequent cohorts of elderly women due to improvements over time in women's participation and position in the labor market.

Changes in marital relationships over the life course

Marital quality is among the most heavily studied aspects of marital relationships, which is not surprising given its strong association with the stability of marital unions. Measures of marital quality are most often based on reports of the level of happiness or satisfaction with one's marriage. Social scientists once generally believed that marital quality followed a U-shaped pattern over the life course, declining in the early years of marriage and then rising again at midlife. This pattern was thought to result from a reduction in the compatibility of spouses over time or from changes in the marital relationship associated with the shifting demands of child rearing and other social roles over the life course. The evidence for such a pattern, however, was based largely on cross-sectional samples, which infer rather than demonstrate change over the course of individual marriages. Analyses of longitudinal data conducted in the 1990s support the notion that marital quality declines early in marriage, but do not suggest that marital quality recovers again in midlife (Glenn; Vaillant and Vaillant). Instead, these studies suggest that marital quality remains relatively stable during the later years of marriage.

Despite this apparent lack of improvement in marital quality beyond midlife, and evidence of a general decline in the level of marital happiness in the United States during the latter half of the twentieth century, the majority of people still in their marriages in later life report these relationships as being happy or very happy. Of course, it is likely that many unhappily married couples end their unions through divorce earlier in life. Studies of long-lasting marriages suggest that commitment to one's spouse and to the institution of marriage, viewing one's spouse as a best friend, and sharing similar life goals and a sense of humor characterize these durable relationships (Lauer, Lauer, and Kerr). Although more research has been conducted on the content of marital interaction among young couples than among relatively older couples, there is some evidence that the interactions of older couples are less emotional but more affectionate than the interactions of middle-aged couples (Cartensen, Gottman, and Levenson). Older couples have also been found to display lower levels of anger, disgust, belligerence, and whining in their interactions than middle-aged couples.

Factors affecting marital relationships in later life

Several factors are associated with variation in subjective assessments of marital quality in later life. For example, men are more likely to report high satisfaction with their marriages in later life than are women, highlighting the fact that assessments of marital quality may vary depending on which spouse is asked. Some research further suggests that marital quality tends to be higher for better educated individuals and for people who attend religious services frequently, but lower for people who report less satisfaction with their division of household labor (Karney and Bradbury; Suitor). Perceptions of the fairness in the division of household labor, however, more strongly affect assessments of marital satisfaction among wives than among husbands.

Much attention has been paid to the impact of retirement on marital relationships in later life. Demographic trends such as increasing numbers of women in the workforce and longer life expectancy suggest that retirement is increasingly becoming a couple event, meaning that both husband and wife tend to retire together and adapt simultaneously to each other's retirement (Szinovacz and Ekerdt). Retirement may reduce role conflicts and time constraints experienced by men and women, increase the amount of time couples spend with one another, and offer the potential for a reshuffling of domestic roles. Despite this potential for major change in the context of marital relationships in later life, much research suggests that retirement has little effect on overall levels of marital satisfaction among older couples. Indeed, many studies show that retired couples who are currently happy with their marriages also tended to have been happy with their marriages before they retired. Yet, the context in which retirement occurs is important. For example, marital satisfaction may deteriorate and marital conflict may increase if husbands retire before their wives, perhaps because wives tend to retain responsibility for the majority of household chores (Lee and Shehan). Although many men do increase their participation in household tasks upon retirement, this effort tends to be directed toward projects such as home remodeling or heavy out-door work, leading to little reduction in the daily chores performed by women (Vinick and Ekerdt).

Finally, marital relationships can be affected by changes in the health status of spouses that require one spouse to become the primary care-giver for the other. A large proportion of the research on caregiving's impact on the marital relationship has focused on individuals caring for spouses with dementia, although this literature has also examined other forms of mental and physical impairment. Taken together, this body of research suggests that marital quality and intimacy tend to decline under the strain of deteriorating health and caring for an ill spouse (e.g., Kramer and Lambert; Booth and Johnson). A spouse's poor health appears to have larger negative effects on perceptions of marital quality than does the deterioration of one's own health. Although findings vary across studies, some evidence suggests that caregiving wives are more likely to report strain, depression, and negative feelings toward their marriages than caregiving husbands. These gender differences are more pronounced, however, when the spouse in need of care is cognitively impaired, perhaps because the resulting loss of reciprocity in the marital relationship impacts the well-being of women more than men (Hooker et al.). Wives also tend to provide more care than husbands when their spouses become ill or impaired, which may further explain women's relatively higher level of stress in the caregiving role (Allen).


Taken together, these findings suggest that couples whose marriages survive into later life can generally look forward to happy and satisfying relationships. More research is needed, however, to better understand how marital relationships in later life may vary across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic subpopulations. More longitudinal analyses of representative samples are also needed to examine how individual marriages change over time and in response to important life events such as retirement and declines in health.

In conclusion, it is important to place the experiences of older Americans at the beginning of the twenty-first century in historical context, as demographic trends point to change in the context of marital relationships for subsequent cohorts of older adults. For example, changing social norms and improved economic opportunities for women have increased the overall labor force participation of wives. The effect of these changes on gender relations within later life marriages will be more strongly felt in the years to come, as cohorts of women who experienced high rates of labor force participation throughout their lives move into increasingly older age groups. High levels of divorce further suggest that increasing numbers of Americans will be unmarried as they enter old age. To the extent that marriage is associated with benefits in terms of health and well-being in later life, it is important that we better understand the mechanisms underlying these observed relationships, and identify alternative sources of emotional and instrumental support among older adults.

Megan M. Sweeney Elaine M. Replogle

See also Divorce: Trends and Consequences; Marriage and Remarriage; Retirement, Transition.


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