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Relationships are Key to Health across the Lifespan

Relationships are Key to Health across the Lifespan

A wealth of research indicates that maintaining a satisfying romantic relationship is critical for one’s mental and physical well-being. For instance, individuals who have a supportive relationship partner report higher self-esteem, greater self-efficacy, and lower levels of psychological distress and depression. Likewise, the quality of one’s romantic relationship is a powerful predictor of cardiovascular health, immune functioning, and even mortality risk. In fact, the impact of close relationships on health has been shown to be larger than the impact of a variety of negative health behaviors, such as smoking, excessive drinking, and obesity.  

Unfortunately, despite the importance of romantic relationships for health and happiness, we live in a time in which longer life expectancies and high divorce rates have created a dramatic increase in the number of older adults (i.e., age 60+) who find themselves unpartnered and searching for companionship. Yet, although dating in later life has become quite normative, research on how older adults form and maintain satisfying new romantic relationships is scarce.

To fill this research gap, Dr. Lisa Neff, an associate professor in Human Development and Family Sciences and her colleague, Dr. Jennifer Beer (associate professor in Psychology at UT Austin), recently have been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to explore potential age-related changes in the way individuals navigate the inevitable challenges of newly-formed romantic relationships. The primary goal of the study is to determine whether the life experience that comes with age facilitate positive relationship functioning, particularly when faced with relationship difficulties. 

Although prior studies of aging suggest that older adults may be more skilled than younger adults in their ability to successfully navigate relationship challenges, this work has generally focused on older adults in longstanding marriages (e.g., 20+ years), and thus these findings may not extrapolate to newly-formed dating relationships established later in life. Given that newly-formed dating relationships can be especially challenging to navigate as couples learn how to coordinate their everyday routines and integrate their lives, the researchers intend to examine whether older adults’ advantage over younger adults might diminish in this relational context. Specifically, the current project, which is set to begin in Summer 2015, will provide a more comprehensive understanding of relationship maintenance efforts across the lifespan by comparing the maintenance strategies of older adults (i.e., age 60 +) in longstanding marriages, older adults in newly formed dating relationships, younger adults (i.e., age 30-45) in longstanding marriages, and younger adults in newly-formed dating relationships, as well as the implications of these strategies for emotional and physical well-being. Thus, this study will provide a unique opportunity to expand our understanding of age-related changes in interpersonal processes and inform efforts for improving health and happiness across the lifespan.