Marital Conflict in Older Adults: Endocrinological and Immunological Correlates

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Abstract

Objective

To assess endocrinological and immunological correlates of marital conflict and marital satisfaction, 31 older couples (mean age 67 years) who had been married an average of 42 years were studied.

Method

Couples were admitted to the Clinical Research Center and a catheter was placed in each subject's arm. Blood was drawn on entry for immunological assays; for hormone analyses, five blood samples were drawn during a 30-minute conflict discussion and a 15-minute recovery session. The conflict session was recorded on videotapes that were later coded for problem-solving behaviors using the Marital Interaction Coding System (MICS).

Results

Among wives, escalation of negative behavior during conflict and marital satisfaction showed strong relationships to endocrine changes, accounting for 16% to 21% of the variance in the rates of change of cortisol, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and norepinephrine (but not epinephrine). In contrast, husbands' endocrine data did not show significant relationships with negative behavior or marital quality. Both men and women who showed relatively poorer immunological responses across three functional assays (the blastogenic response to two T-cell mitogens and antibody titers to latent Epstein-Barr virus) displayed more negative behavior during conflict; they also characterized their usual marital disagreements as more negative than individuals who showed better immune responses across assays.

Conclusion

Abrasive marital interactions may have physiological consequences even among older adults in long-term marriages.

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