Even after death, one spouse relies on the other

(Credit: Nora Raaum/Flickr)

As married couples spend day in and day out together, they begin to experience a level of interdependence in which one spouse’s quality of life is very closely tied to that of the other.

A new study suggests that interdependence continues even after the death of one spouse. What’s more, the association between a deceased and surviving spouse is just as strong as the association between partners who are both living.

“If your partner has higher quality of life before they pass away, you’re more likely to have higher quality of life even after they’re gone,” says Kyle Bourassa, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Arizona. “If he or she has lower quality of life before they pass away, you’re then more likely to have lower quality of life.”

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In an earlier study, researchers discovered that a person’s cognitive functioning and health influence not only his or her own well-being but also the well-being of his or her partner. They wondered whether this interdependence continues when one of the partners passes away.

To find out, they turned to the multinational, representative Study of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe, or SHARE, an ongoing research project with more than 80,000 aging adult participants across 18 European countries and Israel.

Reminiscing about a lost spouse

Specifically, they examined data from 546 couples in which one partner had died during the study period and data from 2,566 couples in which both partners were still living.

The researchers were surprised to find no observable difference in the strength of the interdependence in couples’ quality of life when comparing widowed spouses with spouses whose partners remained alive. They replicated these findings in two independent samples from the SHARE study, while controlling for other factors that might have played a role, such as participants’ health, age and number of years married.

“Even though your marriage ends in a literal sense when you lose your spouse, the effects of who the person was still seem to matter even after they’re gone,” Bourassa says. “I think that really says something about how important those relationships are.”

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While it’s not entirely clear why the interdependence persists, it’s likely that the thoughts and emotions a person experiences when reminiscing about a lost spouse may contribute to the ongoing connection.

“Relationships are something we develop over time and they are retained in our mind and memory and understanding of the world, and that continues even after physical separation,” says Mary-Frances O’Connor, assistant professor of psychology and a coauthor of the paper that is published in Psychological Science.

The findings could have implications for end-of-life care and for helping those who have lost their spouses, Bourassa says. “If you can boost someone’s quality of life before they pass, that might affect not just their life, but the quality of life of their partner and their family.”

Source: University of Arizona