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Study: A responsive partner can mean a longer life

Research shows having a partner whom you feel understands you, and cares about and appreciates you is linked to better health and well-being.

A Cornell human development expert and his colleagues have just discovered it also can lead to a longer life.

The researchers found people who reported a significant drop in their partner’s responsiveness over the first decade of their long-term relationship also reported having more negative reactions to common daily stresses; it was those negative reactions to stress that predicted a greater likelihood of dying 20 years after the start of the study. Those who had significantly stronger than average negative reactions to stress at the 10-year mark were about 42 percent more likely to have died a decade years later.

The paper, “Perceived Partner Responsiveness, Daily Negative Affect Reactivity, and All-Cause Mortality,” was published June 18 in Psychosomatic Medicine.

Prior research had shown that one of the benefits of being in a responsive relationship is it helps us to regulate our own emotions in response to daily stress. “When we have someone to whom we can turn, who really gets us, that helps us deal with the daily hassles of everyday living. In prior work, that had a positive effect on subjective well-being,” said co-author Anthony Ong, professor of human development and of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. “What was surprising in this study was that declines in perceived partner responsiveness over time were associated with a higher risk of mortality, and affective reactivity was one of the main mechanisms underlying this association.”

The researchers tracked 1,208 adults who participated in the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States, a nationally representative study. The study participants were 25 to 74 years old at the start of the study, and each had a spouse or live-in partner.

The researchers looked at how responsive they thought their partner was at the beginning of the study, how stable that perceived responsiveness was over 10 years, and whether that stability predicted the person’s mortality 20 years after the start of the survey.

Initially participants answered questions about how much they felt their partner understood, cared about and appreciated them. Ten years later, they answered those questions again and also filled out daily records for eight days about whether they had experienced stressful events such as problems at home or work, conflicts with others, or discrimination. And they answered questions about how often they felt a wide range of emotions – for example, hopelessness, fright, frustration or nervousness on the negative end of the spectrum, and cheerfulness, calmness, satisfaction or pride on the positive end. Twenty years after the survey began, the researchers noted which participants had died.

The work adds to a growing body of research suggesting that being in a long-term responsive relationship is good for one’s health, Ong said.

“Our data suggest efforts to build empathy in relationships and see things from your partner’s perspective, particularly in marital relationships, are going to have a big effect not just on mortality but also on the ways in which we respond to our own daily stressors.”

Ong’s co-authors are Sarah Stanton of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland; Emre Selcuk of Middle East Technical University in Turkey; and Allison Farrell and Richard Slatcher of Wayne State University.

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Gillian Smith