Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Apr 29, 2019

Loneliness in Marriage

by Ning Hsieh and Louise Hawkley
miniature toy people sit with arms crossed, backs to each other, on a pair of wedding rings.

Married people tend to feel less isolated and lonely than unmarried people. But do all marriages protect people from loneliness? Or do certain types of marriages cause people to feel lonelier? And do married men and women have similar experiences with respect to loneliness?

In a national study of heterosexual marriages in the U.S. among people over the age of 57, we found that the quality of people’s marriages varies greatly in terms of the amount of support and strain that couples perceive in their relationships. And the quality of people’s marriages matters for how lonely people feel.

People in about a fifth of the marriages we studied considered their relationships aversive. In these relationships, one or both partners not only felt strained, with many demands and a good deal of criticism from the spouse, but they also reported being unsupported in that they could not open up to and rely on their partner. Both husbands and wives in aversive marriages felt the loneliest compared to other married people in the study.

By contrast, 35% of married men and 42% of married women reported that their marriages were purely supportive, with low strain and high support. Not surprisingly, people in supportive marriages were the least lonely among the participants in our study.

For many people, however, marriage is not all good or all bad. Indeed, a sizable share of married people in our sample (39% of men and 25% of women) felt ambivalent about their marriages. These people reported that, although their spouse was supportive, he or she was also demanding and critical.

Men were more likely than women to have an ambivalent view of their marriages. This difference might reflect the fact that, in heterosexual relationships, women often assume the roles of caregiver and home-keeper; these roles may reinforce negative perceptions of women, such as that they are nagging or micro-managing. That being said, men and women in ambivalent marriages did not feel lonelier than those in purely supportive marriages. Perhaps people interpret the tension that comes with nagging and criticism as loving concern when it happens in the context of an otherwise supportive relationship.  And, this benign interpretation of the spouse’s demands might keep feelings of loneliness from setting in.

The rest of the married people in our sample (8% of men and 11% of women) appeared indifferent toward their marriages, reporting that their spouse was neither a source of support nor a source of strain. Interestingly, women in indifferent marriages were lonelier than those in supportive marriages, but men in indifferent marriages were no more lonely than men who reported supportive marriages. This gender difference suggests that the absence of criticism and demand from the spouse may not be sufficient to protect older married women from feeling lonely; women also need to feel the support of a reliable spousal confidant. However, the absence of criticism and demands may, by themselves, be sufficient to protect older married men from loneliness.

Finally, our study showed not only that people who consider their marriages aversive tend to feel lonely, but that their loneliness spills over and increases their partner’s loneliness too. This “partner” effect, where loneliness spreads between partners, may be the result of reciprocal negative interactions. When people behave in a critical, unsupportive, or mean fashion toward their spouse, their partner is likely to respond in critical, unsupportive, or mean fashion as well. The more often these negative exchanges occur, the more likely spouses are to distance themselves emotionally from each other. Emotionally distant relationships, in turn, make people feel lonely. The lesson here is that insensitive or unsupportive behavior can feed forward and make both partners lonelier.

In sum, not all marriages protect people against loneliness equally. People who feel that their marriages are “all pain with no gain” feel much lonelier than those in supportive marriages. Given the links between loneliness and poor health outcomes, efforts to maintain and enhance marital relationship quality may pay off not only in greater well-being but also in better health among married individuals.   

For Further Reading:
Hsieh, N., & Hawkley, L. (2018). Loneliness in the older adult marriage: Associations with dyadic aversion, indifference, and ambivalence. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35(10), 1319-1339.

Ning Hsieh is a faculty member at Michigan State University who studies social relationships and health disparities. Louise Hawkley is a Senior Research Scientist with NORC at the University of Chicago who studies the causes and health consequences of loneliness in older adults.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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