A study of more than 700 couples who’ve been married on average 39 years shows big emotional differences in how men and women cope with marital problems.
“The men don’t really want to talk about it or spend too much time thinking about it,” says Deborah Carr, a professor in the sociology department at Rutgers University. “Men often don’t want to express vulnerable emotions, while women are much more comfortable expressing sadness or worry.”
Men and women have very different emotional reactions to the strain and support they experience in marriage, Carr says. While talking about issues and offering support makes the wives—who traditionally feel responsible for sustaining the emotional climate of a marriage—feel good, this only frustrated the husbands surveyed.
“For women, getting a lot of support from their spouse is a positive experience,” says Carr. “Older men, however, may feel frustrated receiving lots of support from their wife, especially if it makes them feel helpless or less competent.”
Giving and receiving support
In the study, the couples were asked how their marital experience—and the reactions of their spouse—affected them. They responded to whether they could open up to their spouse if they needed to talk about their worries, whether their spouse appreciates them, understands the way they feel about things, argues with them, makes them feel tense, and gets on their nerves.
The findings appear in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences.
The husbands in the study, who more often rated their marriages positively and reported significantly higher levels of emotional support and lower levels of marital strain than their wives, felt frustrated giving as well as receiving support.
“Men who provide high levels of support to their wives may feel this frustration if they believe that they would rather be focusing their energies on another activity,” Carr says.
Different for younger generations?
It may also have something to do with the age of the couples, with one spouse in the study having to be at least 60. Men of this generation may feel less competent if they need too much support from their wives, Carr adds.
“We don’t know if younger generations of men would act differently in this situation,” Carr says. “But frustration is an under-researched emotion that needs to be looked at further.”
This is particularly important as couples age, become more dependent, less healthy and face the possibility of getting dementia or becoming a caregiver, Carr notes.
“If older men or women with dementia have reduced impulse control, they could lash out against their spouse if they’re feeling frustrated,” she says. “It’s very important to keep in mind these dynamics even with long married couples who you may not think have any problems.”
The bottom line, says Carr, is that there has to be a middle ground between marital suffocation and togetherness. Spouses want to feel loved and supported but not trapped.
“The general message is that support is good only if one views it as helpful and desirable,” she adds. “Most people want to feel they’re capable of managing their own life.”
Source: Rutgers University