Loneliness is a particularly negative psychological experience that is linked to poor physical health. Single people and those who live alone are susceptible to loneliness, as are those who have poor quality social relationships. In fact, even those who have long-term relationships, such as married people, can experience loneliness if their marriages are unfulfilling. What is it about a poor quality marriage that results in feelings of loneliness?
Data from a large-scale study of over 1,100 married, opposite-sex couples in Ireland (more than 2,200 individuals), in which at least one spouse was over 60 years of age (average age of participants = 67 years old), was used to investigate loneliness among older adults. Both partners completed a self-report survey that included questions about their current loneliness levels, relationship quality measures, and a range of demographic and baseline variables (e.g., income, education, employment status, number of children, whether other family members lived with them, health, depression, etc.).
The data analysis indicated that those in low quality marriages (i.e., the couple members were unhappy and unfulfilled in their relationships) tended to report being more lonely, even after accounting for the other demographic and psychological variables. In short, simply being married does not make people immune from loneliness. The quality of the relationship matters and those in high quality marriages tended to be less lonely. Similarly, those with partners reporting low relationship quality tended to feel lonely. In addition, the results show support the idea that loneliness is contagious and if one partner feels lonely, it can “rub off” on their partner who then also feels lonelier too.
This work adds to a growing body of literature that suggests relationships impact psychological well-being across individuals’ lives, even (or perhaps especially) into one’s later years. Even though older people may be married and living with their spouses, they still can experience loneliness if that relationship is unsatisfying. Furthermore, there may be a cycle of loneliness that occurs as one spouse’s loneliness promotes loneliness in their partner. Keeping tabs on the mental health and relationship quality of our older relatives, friends, and neighbors is important, even if they have spouses.
Stokes, J. E., (2017). Marital quality and loneliness in later life: A dyadic analysis of older married couples in Ireland. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 34, 114-135.
Dr. Benjamin Le – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.