How important is being close to your romantic partner? A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships suggests that spatial proximity can have implications for the dynamics of the relationship.
Many people rely heavily on their spouses, both emotionally and practically. This is especially true as they age, and children become adults. As people get older, often they become more isolated and contact with other people naturally lessens.
For this reason, relationship strength, which is important throughout the lifespan, can become even more important in older adulthood. Romantic relationships can be protective factors for health, but that depends on the dynamics of that relationship. Relationships are meant to be a support, but poor relationship quality can lead to loneliness and stress.
“Relationship researchers typically ask people how they’re doing and assume they can recall properly and give meaningful answers. But as couples age and have been together for a long time, they laugh when we ask them how satisfied or how committed they are. When they have been married for 30 or 40 years, they feel that indicates commitment in itself,” said study author Brian Ogolsky, associate professor at the University of Illinois.
“We were looking for more objective ways to measure relationship dynamics, and we know that being around other people has psychological benefits. So, physical proximity seemed liked a strong candidate.”
Ogolsky and his colleagues utilized 10 married couples in the Midwestern United States who are heterosexual, living together, and at least 60 years old. Ages ranged from 64 to 88 years old, and a majority of participants have a graduate education. All couples were white.
Researchers set up a system involving attaching anchors to walls to track each participants location within their home. Proximity was measured when both members of the couple were in the house for 14 days. Participants were also wearing FitBits to measure heartrate. Additionally, participants completed self-report measures on affect, relationship satisfaction, and global stress.
Results showed that couples spent 10 to 56% of their time in close proximity to each other. There were no clear patterns about how proximity affected stress or relationship satisfaction. The least stressed-out couple spent a lot of time in close proximity, but the second least stressed couple spent the least time in close proximity. The results showed a huge amount of variability in patterns between the couples, but also within the couples on different days.
“We found each day is a unique context that changes depending on circumstances,” Ogolsky said in a news release. “Couple interactions, their attitudes, behaviors, whether they’re close to each other or far away, change all the time. Even across 14 days, couples are not consistent enough in these kinds of objective patterns to allow us to make any couple-level conclusions. We can make only make day-level predictions.”
Proximity had a relationship with each partner’s heart rate, but there was a high level of variability there as well. This suggests that the moments and interactions surrounding the proximity may be the key pieces that are not being measured in this study. Future research could examine this.
“This suggests a delicate balance. When one partner triggers the other partner, they start a unique couple-level dance that affects their physiology and their patterns throughout the day,” Ogolsky explained.
This study took steps into understanding dynamics and proximity in older adult couples. Despite this, it has some limitations. Firstly, the couples were all white, which shows a significant lack of diversity. Future research should try to be more inclusive. Additionally, the data collection for this study only took place within the household and could not account for times when the couple was not home.
The study, “Spatial proximity as a behavioral marker of relationship dynamics in older adult couples“, was authored by Brian G. Ogolsky, Shannon T. Mejia, Alexandra Chronopoulou, Kiersten Dobson, Christopher R. Maniotes, TeKisha M. Rice, Yifan Hu, Jaclyn C. Theisen, and Carolina Carvalho Manhães Leite.