Perceived Reciprocity and Relationship Satisfaction: Age and Relationship Category Matter

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Abstract

Past work suggests that perceived reciprocity in social relationships declines with age. Although positive associations between perceived reciprocity and relationship satisfaction have been documented, relationship satisfaction seems to remain relatively stable over the life-span. Addressing this seemingly contradictory pattern of findings, we predicted that perceived reciprocity may become less important to relationship satisfaction with age and that this association differs across various relationship categories (i.e., spousal, communal, and exchange relationships). We tested these predictions applying multilevel models to cross-sectional and longitudinal data of middle-aged and older adults from the Interdisciplinary Longitudinal Study of Aging (ILSE). Consistent with past work, perceived reciprocity was lower in older than middle-aged adults and declined over time, while relationship satisfaction did not differ between age groups and increased over time. Inconsistent with our prediction, the association between perceived reciprocity and relationship satisfaction was stronger in older than middle-aged adults in our cross-sectional analyses. By contrast, the longitudinal analyses that were based on only older adults were consistent with our prediction: the association between perceived reciprocity and relationship satisfaction decreased over time. Additionally, the association between perceived reciprocity and relationship satisfaction differed between relationship categories, being particularly strong in spousal relationships and less in communal and exchange relationships. In general, our results suggest that both, age and relationship category, need to be considered when investigating perceived reciprocity and relationship satisfaction from an adult life-span perspective.

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