A new study finds that the onset of physical disability boosts marital happiness more often than not.
The study shows what happens with couples when one of them loses the ability to perform routine daily activities:
- Both men and women – regardless of age – reported being happier in their marriage after they themselves became physically disabled.
- Men whose spouse became physically disabled also experienced greater happiness in their relationship.
- Women whose spouse became physically disabled reported no overall change in the relationship.
“The numbers show that couples seem to come together when one of them experiences physical limitations,” says lead author Jeremy Yorgason, a Brigham Young University professor. “This suggests disability is a two-way street, with some surprising pluses in addition to the minuses people ordinarily expect.”
The results, published in the journal Research on Aging, are based on information provided by 1,217 married people randomly selected from around the country. Researchers tracked the lives of the study participants for 12 years. By study’s end, about one-fourth of participants—ranging from 36 to 75 years old—reported that either they or their spouse had permanent physical conditions that restricted activities like dressing, bathing, eating, or working around the house. The researchers zeroed in on this group, comparing their satisfaction in marriage before and after the physical disability occurred.
Exactly why physical limitations boost marital happiness is not fully understood by researchers, Yorgason says. One hint from the new study is that in some cases disability brings more couple interaction.
One expert not involved with the study notes a particular increase in quality time reported by older husbands.
“This suggests that taking on care roles and responsibilities that may be new or more focused than in previous times in their marriage provided the men an opportunity to support and spend more time with their wives and ultimately enhanced their appreciation of their relationship,” says Karen Roberto, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Gerontology.
Since the onset of physical disability is often stressful, Yorgason recommends couples allow time to adjust and look within their relationship for the “silver lining.”
Alan Booth and David Johnson of Penn State are co-authors on the study.