Physical disability brings marital happiness

As this year’s National Marriage Week kicks off today, Lauren Vanderkar reports on research from the USA which reveals that partners are happier in their marriage after becoming physically disabled

The onset of physical disability can be a distressing and stressful time for many people. But according to research carried out in America, there is a silver lining: physical disability brings marital happiness.

Jeremy Yorgason, professor of family life at Brigham Young University in Utah, USA, found that both men and women of all ages reported being happier in their marriage after becoming physically disabled. Men whose spouses became disabled also felt more satisfied in their relationship, though women reported no overall change after their husbands became disabled.

After following 300 participants for 12 years, Yorgason concluded that marital happiness is boosted by physical disability. But his report lacks any explanation as to why this is, and whether couples elsewhere – Britain, for example – would agree.

Gillian Parker, professor of social policy research at York University, has also studied the effect of disability on marriage and is not surprised by Yorgason’s findings.

“Men who leave the labour market and take on care responsibilities are going to be more satisfied because they have taken on a new role. For women, it’s just more of the same. They’ve cared for the children growing up and now they care for their husband,” she says.  

However, Parker is more interested in the relationship between partners in a marriage, which Yorgason’s study fails to properly address because he only interviews one person in each household.

“If one partner becomes disabled, then the other person will re-examine their relationship. They will look for something else to value,” says Parker. In other words, the relationship between husband and wife is not necessarily better or worse, but a different kind of relationship based on new values and priorities.

“It’s a very bold statement to say that physical disability improves marital happiness. There’s actually something quite subtle going on in a marriage,” she adds.

Michelle Dutton, an advocacy worker for Disability Stockport, sees the shift of power in a marriage as one of the biggest effects of a partner becoming disabled.

“Particularly with older generations, a husband becoming physically disabled can be quite empowering for the woman and very disempowering for the man. I’ve heard of women becoming more independent because they are allowed control of bank accounts and finances for perhaps the first time in their marriage,” she says.

Dutton has first-hand experience of physical impairment: after 20 years of marriage, she became partially sighted. Her own independence was a vital part of Dutton’s relationship with her husband. “It was crucial to our marriage that everything was balanced. If my husband was working more than me, I would have done the cooking and cleaning, and it was the same the other way around,” she says.

But after losing her central vision to a genetic disease, Dutton found it much harder to contribute. “We had these roles and all that just went. My feelings of loss of independence were awful. It did have an impact on our marriage.”

A turning point came when Dutton and her husband went on a Finding Your Feet weekend, organised by the charity RNIB, which helped them both adapt to her loss of sight. “In a way it has brought us closer because we had to go through some really tough stuff,” she says.

But for Dutton the hard part is never quite over. “Even now, I can feel inadequate and unequal,” she says. “I wouldn’t say that it’s made our marriage stronger. It’s made it different. You build something, you take it apart, and when you put it back together it’s not quite the same as before.”

The loss of independence in a marriage is not something that can easily be fixed, but support from other agencies can take the pressure off a relationship.

As an advocacy worker, Dutton often visits disabled people who have no knowledge or information about the support available in the UK. For Dutton, this highlights the difference between Britain and America, where Yorgason based his study.

“In America people tend to seek out and be given information about social support to a much higher level. They are more savvy about what’s available,” she says.

In Dutton’s experience, many disabled people in the UK rely on their spouse for support because they don’t like the thought of having a carer. But it is this way of thinking that can destroy a marriage. Social support needs to be promoted in a way that shows people they can receive outside help and still retain independence. 

“Marriages get better when the husband or wife stays as a husband or wife, and not a carer,” says Dutton.


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