The familiar adage “happy wife, happy life” may not be so simple for older men facing health challenges, suggests a new University of Nebraska-Lincoln study.
According to recently published findings by UNL sociologist David Warner and doctoral student Scott Adams, older married men with disabilities may do better when their wives become more demanding. The study, published in the July issue of Society and Mental Health, found that married men facing long-term physical limitations feel less lonely if their wives engage in more demanding and critical behavior, but increases in supportive behavior from spouses did not matter at all.
That was a surprising finding, Warner said, since most prior research has shown that these behaviors, especially from spouses, have long-term detrimental physical and mental effects. In fact, as expected, the study showed that increasing demanding behavior from spouses and other family and friends leads to more feelings of loneliness for older men without physical disabilities and women regardless of disability status.
For older married men, “the context in which changes in these spousal behaviors happen matters. If a married man has physical disabilities and his wife increases her critical and demanding behaviors, he feels less lonely,” Warner said. “Basically, ‘nagging’ is caring.”
That’s likely because of the gender norms that have been established in long-term marriages, Warner said.
“Among current cohorts of older married men, there is an expectation that their wives are going to manage their health, that she’s going to be the one who makes sure he’s going to the doctor, eating correctly, doing his physical therapy,” he said. “For men, this ‘nagging,’ in a long-running marriage, is a signal that your spouse is invested in you, in your health, in maintaining your independence.”
For married women, though, increases in demanding behaviors from husbands had detrimental effects, leading to greater feelings of loneliness. The study also found that increases in social support from family and friends made all physically disabled adults feel more lonely, which Warner suggested may signal that disabled adults interpret these increasingly supportive behaviors as smothering or pity, leading to relationship imbalance and dissatisfaction.
The study examined a survey of 914 married people between 57 and 85 years old. The participants were surveyed twice in five years to analyze how health, relationships and feelings of loneliness changed.
This study is the first to break down these various changing social relationships along gender lines and to show a distinct difference between men and women in how spousal actions affect their mental health when facing physical limitations.
Warner said more research is needed on the types of demands and criticisms spouses are making, but these findings are important for health care workers and caregivers to understand in pursuing the best possible health outcomes for older patients.