Jessica West, Duke University – Stress Spillover in Marriage Due to Hearing Loss

Hearing loss in a partner can affect one sex more than the other.

Jessica West, PhD student in Sociology at Duke University, discusses the health implications.

I am a fifth year PhD candidate in Sociology and I specialize in medical sociology and demography. Broadly speaking, I study medicine and health from a social and behavioral perspective. My dissertation focuses on stress proliferation and disability from a life course perspective. I also study health disparities by race/ethnicity and immigration status.

Stress Spillover in Marriage Due to Hearing Loss

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Marriage is generally considered to be one of the most important relationships for health. Previous research finds that married people have fewer mental and physical health problems and better overall health compared to unmarried people. However, spouses can also promote poor health because the stress experienced by one partner can spill over to impact the other.

I explored the idea of stress spillover or proliferation between spouses in the context of hearing loss. While lots of research has looked at the impact of hearing loss on individuals, less has explored how hearing loss impacts close others.

To do this, I examined ten waves or 18 years of data on more than 5,000 couples from around the U.S. to see how one spouse’s hearing loss impacts the other spouse’s depression. I found that having a husband with hearing loss does not increase his wife’s depression, but that having a wife with hearing loss does increase her husband’s depression.

This could be because women in heterosexual marriages have traditionally been expected to monitor their husbands’ health, but not vice versa. Since men are less used to serving as caregivers, they might find their wives’ hearing loss distressing. Also, wives usually find social support outside of the marriage, while husbands traditionally rely on their wives for companionship. This would provide wives, but not husbands, with external resources to cope with their spouses’ hearing loss.

These findings suggest that the stress associated with hearing loss does, in fact, spill over from one spouse to another, depending on gender. Health care providers treating women with hearing loss should be aware that the hearing loss might have mental health implications not only for the woman, but also for her husband.

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