Women May Internalize Relationship Problems While Men Get Frustrated

A new study suggests that straight men and women handle marital issues very differently.
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Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.

The Background

Marriage is generally considered to be good for people's psyches -- if the marriage is a good one, that is. Bad marriages have been shown to do the opposite, with studies suggesting that troubled long-term partnerships actually take a toll on psychological health. In a new study, researchers from Rutgers University explore this concept on a more granular level to see how specific negative emotions -- sadness, frustration and worry -- sparked by partners can affect a person's wellbeing over time.

Spoiler alert: Their answer isn't as simple as the old adage "happy wife, happy life" would have you believe.

The Setup

The researchers used data from a 2009 Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a longitudinal study of about 5,000 families. For their purposes, they singled out 722 heterosexual married couples in which both spouses were over the age of 50 and at least one spouse was over the age of 60. Participants answered survey questions about marital quality over the phone. These survey questions measured marital "support" -- or how much "you can open up to your spouse if you need to talk about your worries," "your spouse appreciates you" and "your spouse understands the way you feel about things" -- as well as marital "strain" -- or how much your spouse "argues with you," "makes you feel tense" and "gets on your nerves."

There was also a 30-minute diary component of the study in which participants reported all of the activities they'd performed with their spouse the day before and how they felt while performing three of them. The main goal of this part of the study was to measure how sad, frustrated and/or worried participants felt in their daily lives.

The Findings

After analyzing the responses, the researchers noticed a few key trends around frustration. For one, marital strain was associated with frustration for both men and women (duh?). But for women specifically, when their husbands reported higher levels of marital strain, their worry and sadness levels also shot up. The researchers wrote that this could happen because women "may be highly sensitive to and feel responsible for the emotional climate of one’s marriage," something previous research also suggests.

Interestingly, men reported higher levels of frustration when their wives reported high levels of marital support. Meaning: When a woman felt supported by her husband, he tended to feel frustrated. The researchers offered up some ideas as to why they saw such a "counterintuitive" pattern. First off, these men might be feeling frustrated as a result of whatever's causing their wife to need so much support. Second, the researchers proposed that "providing emotional support may lead to frustration among husbands, if wives who regularly open up to their spouse are conveying negative and critical messages or if providing such support comes at the expense of other more enjoyable activities." You know, men can't do fun stuff when their whiney wives have so many feelings. How frustrating for them.

The Takeaway

These findings are interesting because they're the first to point out possible associations between martial quality and how frustrated, sad and worried partners feel at any given moment. Of course, these are only associations. More research is needed before we can know if long-term relationships actually cause specific negative emotions, and if the gendered dynamics truly do play out this way (for the most part).

Relationships may be as complex as the people in them, but the patterns this particular study found suggest that heterosexual women might just be carrying the brunt of their relationship's emotional weight on their shoulders while men get flustered at the sign of trouble.

For now, all we know for sure is that relationship troubles aren't particularly fun for anyone involved.

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