It is said that couples who have been married for some time begin to develop similar mannerisms and habits. Even the facial and physical features of one partner can tend to mimic those of the other after years together. These factors rarely influence the mental health of either partner. But other factors do. Physical functionality and impairment can decrease one’s quality of life and lead to negative well-being. The spouse of an impaired partner may develop his or her own problems as a result of having to pick up extra tasks and chores that the partner is no longer able to complete. In addition, the stress and worry that come from living with and caring for a loved one with health issues can also significantly impact a partner’s psychological health.
Understanding the nature of these influences and how they work independently for husbands and wives could help clinicians address the needs of couples more effectively. To get a better picture of the nature of this relationship between physical and mental health among spouses, Joelle Ruthig of the Department of Psychology at the University of North Dakota recently led a study that examined the physical health and psychological state of 71 married couples in their 70s. She assessed their conditions over a 2-year period to determine the long-term impact of mental or physical impairments.
Ruthig discovered that men were more strongly affected by the physical health of their spouse than the wives were. Specifically, the husbands with the highest levels of control had wives with good functionality. However, the better the wives’ physical ability, the more depressed the husbands were. This could be due to the fact that the husbands were not able to complete all the tasks their wives could, creating a feeling of incompetence. The mental health of wives also predicted the mental health of their husbands at both year one and year two. But surprisingly, the mental health of husbands had little to no impact on the mental well-being of the wives. And physical impairment did not negatively affect the mental health of the wives at all. Ruthig believes that these findings provide insight that could help clinicians working with older couples. She added, “Gerontologists, health practitioners, and older married adults need to recognize spousal health and psychological well-being as important contributors to well-being in later life.”
Ruthig, J. C., Trisko, J., Stewart, T L. (2012). The impact of spouse’s health and well-being on own well-being: a dyadic study of older married couples. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31.5, 508-529.
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