Husbands no guarantee of happiness for old, old women

Husbands may be more of an annoyance than a comfort for women aged over 85, but everyone loves the company of friends, according to new research on social relationships and emotional wellbeing by Flinders University.

Above: Dr Helena Chui, lead researcher 

“Women are more likely to experience bereavement from widowhood because men die younger on average but our research shows women are actually not happy when their partners are with them on a day to day basis.”

Dr Helena Chui

A study by researchers at Flinders University in South Australia has shown what many women might say they have known for some time – that having a husband to grow old with, isn’t everything it might be cracked up to be.

The study that has just been published online in the international journal, Developmental Psychology, measured the effect of different types of social interactions on the day to day happiness of 74 Adelaide men and women over the age of 85.

As part of the survey, participants recorded their emotions in the presence of various social partners – including their spouse, family, friends and carers – six times a day over seven consecutive days in 2010.

The majority (68 per cent) of participants were widowed, however the female respondents who did have a spouse reported feeling more unhappy when they were interacting with their spouse than when they were alone.

While the study did not ask the female respondents to state why they felt unhappy in their partner’s company, lead author Dr Helena Chui said the speculation was that they were burdened by the double roles of being a wife and full-time carer.

“Women are more likely to experience bereavement from widowhood because men die younger on average but our research shows women are actually not happy when their partners are with them on a day to day basis,” Dr Chui, a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Flinders Centre for Ageing Studies and the School of Psychology, said.

“We’d need to conduct another study to find out why but the assumption is that the husband is usually older than the wife, therefore the wife is more likely to be the caregiver,” she said.

Dr Chui said they found that male respondents didn’t feel particularly happy or unhappy when they were with their wives, while on average, all respondents said they felt happiest when they were with their friends.

“They also reported feeling happy when they were with family members, although on the scale we used to measure emotion they were happiest with friends first, followed by family.”

Unhappy alone

In addition to gender differences, the researchers examined individual differences among respondents in neuroticism, depressive symptoms, chronic health conditions, and loneliness. 

Over the seven day survey period, Dr Chui said respondents spent 70 per cent of their time alone, during which they reported feeling less happy than when they were with other people.

She said those with higher levels of neuroticism benefited most from friendships.

Interestingly, visits from formal carers or service providers made no impact on everyday emotions across all participant types.

“What we know is that 70 per cent of the time the oldest-old are alone and they’re not very happy when they’re alone.

“We also know they’re happiest when they’re with their friends, which tells us we need to encourage the oldest-old to go out and meet friends because that’s likely to make them happy.

“But it’s not that easy to leave the house when you’re very old because of mobility and transport issues so governments must take the lead in developing policies that foster social connectedness among the oldest-old.”

Link to research paper: Social Partners and Momentary Affect in the Oldest-Old: The Presence of Others Benefits Affect Depending on Who We Are and Who We Are With. Dev Psychol. 2013 Jul 29. [Epub ahead of print]

Tags: flinders-university, happiness, helena-chui, husbands, loneliness, research,

2 thoughts on “Husbands no guarantee of happiness for old, old women

  1. My experience with my mum & her friends were that when their husbands died they grieved for a few months and then about 6 months after loosing their partner they started travelling a lot. Maybe they went on a holiday with their husband once a year within the state they lived and now they are gallivanting around Australia and oversea’s as well. I think it’s wonderful that they spread their wings and find them selves after the loss of their husband.

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