Marital Conflict, Depressive Symptoms, and Functional Impairment

Article excerpt

Guided by a stress process perspective, we investigated (a) whether marital conflict might directly lead to changes in depression and functional impairment, (b) whether marital conflict might indirectly lead to changes in functional impairment via depression, and (c) whether marital conflict might indirectly lead to changes in depression via functional impairment. We estimated a latent variable causal model using 3 waves of data from the National Survey of Families and Households (N = 1,832). Results indicated that marital conflict directly led to increases in depression and functional impairment and indirectly led to a rise in depression via functional impairment. Overall, findings suggest marital conflict is a significant risk factor for psychological and physical health among midlife and older adults.

Key Words: depressive symptoms, functional limitations, marital conflict, marital quality, physical health, psychological well-being.

The marital relationship can be a critical physical health resource for adults. Numerous studies have indicated that married men and women, compared to their single counterparts, enjoy better health and longer life (e.g., Gove, 1973; Lillard & Waite, 1995; also see Waite & Gallagher, 2000, for a review). Being married typically is expected to lead to greater availability of emotional social support, meaning and purpose in life, and social control, which are considered key processes that promote physical wellness (Umberson, 1987). Yet relatively limited population research thus far has explored how differences in marital quality might be associated with differences in health among married adults.

Laboratory-based biopsychosocial research has provided suggestive evidence that poor marital quality might lead to overall deterioration in physical health. For instance, negative verbal and nonverbal exchanges observed in a marital problem-solving task directly led to problematic autonomie, endocrine, and immune alterations at least for short periods of time after the task (Burman & Margolin, 1992; Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001 ; Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 2005). Also, a few recent community-based surveys have demonstrated that poor marital quality is associated with negative physical health outcomes such as greater functional impairment or lower self-rated health (Bookwala, 2005; Hawkins & Booth, 2005; Umberson, Williams, Powers, Liu, & Needham, 2006).

This study examined the effects of marital conflict on changes in depressive symptoms and functional impairment among married men and women with a longitudinal national sample. Ample evidence exists that lower marital quality is associated with deleterious mental health outcomes such as lower levels of life satisfaction or higher levels of depressive symptoms (see Ross, Mirowsky, & Goldsteen, 1990, for a review). Existing research, however, has been limited to evaluating only the direct effects of marital quality, without considering the linkage between mental and physical health. For instance, past research did not take into account depressive symptoms in investigating the effect of marital quality on functional limitations.

To extend previous literature on marital quality and health, we investigated the following three research questions: (a) Does marital conflict directly lead to increases in depressive symptoms and functional impairment? (b) Does marital conflict indirectly lead to an increase in functional impairment via an increase in depressive symptoms? (c) Does marital conflict indirectly lead to an increase in depressive symptoms via an increase in functional impairment? We estimated a latent variable causal model with three waves of data from a nationally representative sample of midlife and older adults, which allowed us to take into account all possible bidirectional associations among the variables of interest.

Theoretical Background

A stress process theoretical framework (e. …