How Spouses Influence Each Other’s Health Habits in Same-Sex Compared to Different-Sex Marriages

Debra Umberson, Rachel Donnelly, and Amanda Pollitt

Introduction

Married people live longer and healthier lives than unmarried people do. One explanation for this marital advantage is social control of health behavior: the idea that spouses positively influence each other’s health behaviors by using demands, threats, requests, and rewards. For example, spouses could demand that a spouse drink less alcohol, request that their spouse eat better, or offer to exercise together with their spouse.

Studies in the realm of social control find that marriage benefits men’s health more than women’s, in part because women do more than men to influence the health habits of their spouses. However, research on gender roles in marriage has been limited to heterosexual marriage, leaving the social control dynamics of same-sex marriage largely unexplored.

The influence men and women have on a spouse’s health habits likely unfolds differently depending on the sex of their spouse. In this brief, the authors consider the ways social control depends not only on one’s own gender but also on whether one is in a same-sex or different-sex marriage.

Using survey data collected from both spouses in 171 lesbian, 124 gay, and 124 heterosexual married couples (838 individuals), the authors examine the role of gender and marriage type (same- or different-sex marriage) in the dynamics of social control. Specifically, they focus on how much spouses want to change each other’s health behaviors related to eating, exercise, and drinking; the types of social control tactics used by spouses to influence each other’s health habits; and how spouses react to their partner’s social control efforts.

Key Findings

  • How much do spouses want to change each other’s health habits?
    • Eating: No gender or sexual orientation differences were found in how much partners want to change each other’s eating habits.
    • Exercise: Heterosexual spouses (men and women) wanted more change in their spouse’s exercise habits than did gay and lesbian spouses. Higher levels of physical inactivity among heterosexual spouses compared to spouses in gay and lesbian marriages account for this difference.
    • Drinking: Respondents desired more change in men’s drinking habits than women’s—whether in a same-sex or different-sex marriage. Men’s greater alcohol consumption compared to women account for this difference.
  • How do spouses react to each other’s social control efforts?
    • Women in same-sex and different-sex marriages react differently. Women married to women were much more likely to appreciate social control and less likely to ignore their spouse’s social control efforts compared to women married to men.
    • Men in same-sex and different-sex marriages react in similar ways. Men were less likely than women in same-sex marriages to appreciate their spouse’s social control efforts.
    • Who reacts negatively? Across all groups (men and women in same-sex and different-sex marriages) respondents were more likely to feel irritated or to ignore their spouse’s social control efforts when they were more physically inactive or heavier than their spouse.
  • Who uses direct efforts and who uses indirect or stealth efforts to influence their spouse’s health habits?
    • Direct efforts: Women, especially women married to men, were more likely than men to use direct efforts (for example, telling a spouse to stop drinking) to influence a spouse’s health habits. Men married to women were least likely to use these regulating tactics.
    • Indirect efforts: Women in both same-sex and different-sex marriages were more likely than men to use indirect or stealth efforts (for example, watering down alcohol in the home) to influence their spouse’s health habits.

Umberson 3-11 figure

This figure1 shows that heterosexual women were the most likely to use direct efforts to influence their spouse’s health habits, while heterosexual men were the least likely to use direct efforts to influence their spouse’s habits. Women married to women and women married to men were more likely than men, especially heterosexual men, to use indirect efforts to influence a spouse’s health behaviors.
Click here to expand figure

Policy Implications

Decades of research have highlighted how women do more work to influence their spouse’s health habits than men do, to the health benefit of men. In turn, policymakers have devoted considerable effort to harnessing the relationship dynamics of heterosexual marriage in an effort to promote population health. Results of this study show that gay and lesbian spouses, like heterosexual spouses, actively work to influence and improve each other’s health habits, and they, like their heterosexual counterparts, do even more of this work when their spouse’s health habits are worse than their own habits. Therefore, policymakers and others should highlight the ways marriage can promote health in same-sex as well as different-sex couples while also paying attention to gender differences in some of these relationship dynamics.

Reference

Umberson, D., Donnelly, R. & Pollitt, A. (2018). Marriage, social control, and health behavior: A dyadic analysis of same-sex and different-sex couples. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Published online ahead of print.

Suggested Citation

Umberson, D., Donnelly, R. & Pollitt, A. (2018). How spouses influence each other’s health habits in same-sex compared to different-sex marriages. PRC Research Brief 3(11). DOI:10.15781/T2X63BQ44.

About the Authors

Debra Umberson (umberson@prc.utexas.edu) is a professor of sociology and director of the Population Research Center (PRC), The University of Texas at Austin; Rachel Donnelly is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and the PRC; and Amanda M. Pollitt is a NICHD postdoctoral fellow in the PRC.

Acknowledgements

This research was supported, in part, by grant R21AG044585 from the National Institute on Aging (PI, Debra Umberson); grant P2CHD042849 awarded to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; and grant T32 HD007081, Training Program in Population Studies, awarded to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Amanda M. Pollitt also acknowledges support from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (grant F32AA025814). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. 


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