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J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2017 May 1;72(3):383-387. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbv070.

To Love is to Suffer: Older Adults' Daily Emotional Contagion to Perceived Spousal Suffering.

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Social and Behavioral Sciences Division, Yale School of Public Health, New Haven, Connecticut.
The School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson.



For older adults coping with a spouse's chronic condition, greater marital satisfaction may not be entirely protective for psychological health. We examined marital satisfaction and gender as moderators of the association between perceived spousal suffering and daily emotional contagion. Based on empathy-altruism and interdependent self-construal theories, we hypothesized that high marital satisfaction and being female would heighten daily emotional contagion, or within-person associations between perceived spouse suffering and distress to spouse suffering.


Forty-five older adults who had a spouse with a musculoskeletal condition completed daily interviews. Participants reported their marital satisfaction once in the laboratory and then daily perceptions of their spouse's physical suffering and their own distress to spouse suffering via phone at home for 7 days.


Consistent with hypotheses, there were significant within-person effects such that highly satisfied wives experienced heightened emotional contagion on days when they perceived higher than average spouse suffering. Unexpectedly, men who were high in marital satisfaction experienced heightened daily distress irrespective of their perceptions of level of spousal suffering.


Marital satisfaction can increase daily emotional contagion to spousal suffering among older couples dealing with chronic conditions. Wives' distress may be more dependent on perceiving high levels of partner suffering compared with husbands' distress.


Gender differences; Marital satisfaction; Stress; Suffering

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