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For Older Couples, Happy Wife Means Happy Life

Happy senior couple

As country singer Tracy Byrd put it, “When mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” And a new study backs him up.

Researchers at the University of Michigan and Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., found that for older married couples, when the wife is happy with the marriage, the husband is more likely to say he’s happy with his life — even if he’s not quite as satisfied with the union as she is.

“I think it comes down to the fact that when a wife is satisfied with the marriage, she tends to do a lot more for her husband, which has a positive effect on his life,” Deborah Carr, a professor in Rutgers’ Department of Sociology, said in a statement. Men, on the other hand, “tend to be less vocal about their relationship [so] their level of marital unhappiness might not be translated to their wives.”

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The study, published in the October issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, looked at how a couple’s feelings about their marriage affect their psychological well-being. The subject is important because marital quality has far-reaching implications for the health and happiness of older adults, said Carr and her coauthor, Vicki Freedman, a research professor at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Marital quality is an important buffer against the health-depleting effects of later life,” including caregiving and making difficult decisions as a couple ages, Carr said.

The researchers analyzed 2009 data from a sample of 394 couples who were part of a national study of U.S. families. At least one spouse in each couple was age 60 or older.

To assess marital quality, couples were asked several questions, such as whether their spouse appreciates them, argues with them, understands their feelings or gets on their nerves. They were also asked to keep detailed diaries about how happy they were in the previous 24 hours doing selected activities such as shopping, taking care of household chores and watching television.

The results, said Freedman, show that “older husbands and wives in better marriages are more satisfied with their lives.” Both spouses, on average, rated their general life satisfaction as very high — five out of six possible points.

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The researchers also found, however, that wives’ assessments of the marriage were more important than their husbands’.

“Overall life satisfaction for an unhappily married man depends on how his wife describes their relationship. If she describes their marriage as higher quality, his life satisfaction is buoyed — even if he gives the marriage a less glowing assessment,” Freedman said in a statement.

Why? Carr thinks it’s because “women typically provide more emotional and practical support to husbands than vice versa. So even an unhappily married man may receive benefits from the marriage that enhance his overall well-being.”

Photo: monkeybusinessimages/iStock


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