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Updated 2:00 PM February 11, 2005




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A good marriage protects widows from depression

Widowed men and women who enjoyed good marriages are less likely than those whose marriages were bad to be depressed four years after their spouses' deaths.

"A good marriage seems to have a protective impact on surviving spouses while a bad marriage just keeps on making the widowed feel bad even after their spouses are gone," says graduate student Nina Rhee, who conducted a study with U-M psychologist Toni Antonucci.

Rhee and Antonucci, a professor of psychology and senior research scientist at the Institute for Social Research (ISR), presented their findings recently at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America. Their analysis was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the John A. Hartford Foundation.

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from the ISR Changing Lives of Older Couples Study, a multi-wave prospective study of spousal bereavement. After conducting initial interviews with 1,532 older married men and women in the Detroit metro area in 1987 and 1988, researchers tracked participant deaths and conducted follow-up interviews with bereaved spouses six, 18 and 48 months afterwards. They also re-interviewed a control group of individuals from the original study who had not lost spouses.

During the initial interviews, researchers questioned participants about the quality of their relationships and their marriages, and their independence from their spouses, among other issues.

The researchers found that adjustment to widowhood was a dynamic process, with bereaved spouses showing considerable changes in their levels of depression in the four years following their losses. Men and women who had positive attitudes about their spouses and marriages at the start of the study were significantly less depressed four years after their spouses' deaths, while those who had more negative views of their marriages at the start of the study were more depressed four years after being widowed. Those who were more independent in their marriages showed more depression soon after their spouses died, but less depression than highly dependent widows or widowers four years after the losses.

The findings provide further support for the work of the late British psychologist John Bowlby, who maintained that forming, maintaining and grieving the loss of attachment bonds is an integral part of human behavior "from the cradle to the grave."

"We believe that in the case of the widowed who were securely attached to their spouses, this attachment provides them with a secure base with which to face life's problems," Rhee says. "Those who have a secure base and are less dependent on their spouse are more distraught right after their spouse dies. But they have greater resources to develop long-term coping strategies."

While negative evaluation of their marriages and partners did not predict depression at baseline or up to a year-and-a-half after the losses, it did have a significant link with depression four years later.

"One possible explanation is that widows and widowers realized that they did not have a great relationship or that their spouses were not good to them," Rhee says. "These negative views may not have affected their immediate reaction because of other factors associated with grief. But as their grief decreases, the actual reality of their marriage may have a greater impact on their well-being four years later.

"Right after death you tend to focus on the good qualities of the deceased. But by four years later, you're looking at things more realistically."

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