A new study by the University of Chicago found that good health and agreeability on the part of husbands are keys to preventing relationship issues in older couples. The study focused on couples who had been together for decades.
Researchers found these characteristics in women are less important in preventing marital strife, possibly due to what men and women believe make up solid relationships.
"Wives report more conflict if their husband is in poor health," said the study's lead author, James Iveniuk, PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology. "If the wife is in poor health, there doesn't seem to be any difference in terms of the quality of the marriage for the husband."
The study, entitled "Marital Conflict in Older Couples: Positivity, Personality, and Health," analyzed results from a national survey of 953 married or cohabiting heterosexual couples. Participants were between 63 and 90 years old with average relationship length 39 years. Researchers compared characteristics of husbands following interviews with participant, who were asked to describe themselves during the interviews.
The researchers found gender differences when examining personality traits including openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and anxiety. They also added a measure called "positivity," a person's need to be viewed in a positive way.
"Wives whose husbands show higher levels of positivity reported less conflict. However, the wives' positivity had no association with their husbands' reports of conflict," Iveniuk said.
Co-author Linda J. Waite, Lucy Flower Professor of Urban Sociology and director of the Center on Aging at NORC, summarized the study's research of marital conflict as, "How much does your spouse bother you?" Problems included which spouse
criticizes the other, is too demanding, or otherwise irritates the other person.
The study also found men who described themselves as neurotic or extraverts often had wives who complained about their marriages. In comparison, men with "neurotic" wives appeared to deem worrying as "gender-appropriate" for women. Husbands reported "more criticism and demands from their wives overall, but also higher levels of emotional support."
"Several previous studies have been about the implications of marital status on health," Waite says. "This research allows us to examine individual marriages and not 'married people.' We have the reports on the quality of the marriage from each person, about their own personality and their own health."
Researchers believe future studies could examine whether low-conflict marriages involve a balance of emotional responsibilities between spouses in addition to an "absence of frustration factors" such as negative attitudes and dismal health. Iveniuk and his team also note such differences between husbands and wives may change as they analyze younger couples headed towards middle age, who might stick to less conventional gender roles.
A previous study by the University of California, Berkeley found wives are better at keeping the peace than their husbands, and matter more when it comes to calming down following a nasty argument. The study was published in the journal Emotion.
"Emotions such as anger and contempt can seem very threatening for couples. But our study suggests that if spouses, especially wives, are able to calm themselves, their marriages can continue to thrive," said study leader author and psychologist Lian Bloch.
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