You might think that emotional support from a spouse is key when dealing with marital problems, but according to a new study, men do not perceive it that way – particularly those who are older.

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While women like to receive emotional support through marital problems, the same cannot be said for men.

Published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences & Social Sciences, the study found that while a wife perceives emotional support from her husband as a positive experience during marital difficulties, a husband may become frustrated when providing or receiving such support.

To reach their findings, Prof. Deborah Carr – of the Department of Sociology, School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ – and colleagues surveyed 772 couples who had been married for an average of 39 years.

Each participant was asked about their marital quality and how their spouse’s reactions to any problems affected them.

In particular, they were asked whether they felt they could discuss any worries with their spouse if they needed to, whether their spouse appreciates them, whether their spouse understands their feelings, whether they argue with their spouse, and whether their spouse makes them feel tense or frustrates them.

Overall, husbands reported a higher marital quality, lower levels of marital strain and reported receiving much higher levels of emotional support than wives.

Among couples who both reported marital strain, wives reported greater feelings of sadness and worry, though feelings of worry reduced with the receipt of emotional support from their husbands.

However, while husbands reported less sadness and worry, they reported greater feelings of frustration when they gave and received emotional support.

“Men who provide high levels of support to their wives may feel this frustration if they believe that they would rather be focusing their energies on another activity,” notes Prof. Carr.

She speculates that the increased feelings of frustration among husbands may also be related to the age of married couples, with the association solely identified among couples in which one spouse was at least 60 years old.

Prof. Carr explains:

For women, getting a lot of support from their spouse is a positive experience. Older men, however, may feel frustrated receiving lots of support from their wife, especially if it makes them feel helpless or less competent.

Men often don’t want to express vulnerable emotions, while women are much more comfortable expressing sadness or worry.”

The team says their findings are important, as they may have implications for long-term married couples who, as they age, are particularly vulnerable to difficulties that may impact their relationship, such as health problems.

“If older men or women with dementia have reduced impulse control, they could lash out against their spouse if they’re feeling frustrated,” explains Prof. Carr. “It’s very important to keep in mind these dynamics even with long-married couples who you may not think have any problems.”

While the researchers say it is unclear whether younger men would feel frustration when giving or receiving emotional support through marital difficulties, they believe it is something that warrants further investigation.

In the meantime, Prof. Carr says the take-home message from their current findings is that married couples must maintain neutral ground when it comes to dealing with problems.

“The general message is that support is good only if one views it as helpful and desirable,” she says. “Most people want to feel they’re capable of managing their own life.”

Last year, Medical News Today reported on another study from Prof. Carr and colleagues suggesting there is some truth in the “happy wife, happy life” theory, after finding that a husband is more likely to be happier in a long-term marriage if their wife is happy.