Social relationships in later life: Does marital status matter?

TitleSocial relationships in later life: Does marital status matter?
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2023
AuthorsZhang, Z, Hsieh, N, Lai, W-hua
JournalJournal of Social and Personal Relationships
Keywordscohabitation; confidants; gender; intergenerational relations; Marital status; relationship quality; remarriage; social network

Previous research has suggested that unmarried persons may be disadvantaged in personal networks and social support. However, little is known about whether the quantity and quality of social relationships differ by marital status among older Americans. Using data from the 2006 and 2008 psychosocial questionnaires of the Health and Retirement Study, we examined the quantity and frequency of contact of three types of social relationships (i.e., friends, children, and family members) as well as the quality of these ties across six marital status groups (i.e., first married, remarried, cohabiting, divorced/separated, widowed, and never married). Our analytic sample included 13,087 respondents aged 51 and above. Multiple linear regression was used for the analysis. Our results show significant differences in social relationships by marital status. In terms of relationships with friends, compared to first-married persons, all the unmarried groups (except the cohabitors) had more frequent contact with their friends and reported greater support as well as greater strain from their friends, controlling for demographic covariates. Remarried persons and cohabitors were largely similar to their first-married counterparts except that both had fewer friends they felt close to, and the cohabitors also reported greater strain with their friends. In terms of relationships with children, all the unmarried groups except for widowed persons had fewer children they felt close to. All the unmarried groups were also disadvantaged in contact frequency and perceived social support from their children. Remarried persons were significantly disadvantaged compared to first-married persons in contact frequency and relationship quality with their children. These associations were largely robust when health and socioeconomic conditions were controlled for. In terms of relationships with family members, there were only a few significant differences across marital status groups. Our findings show the crucial role of marital status in shaping social relationships in later life. © The Author(s) 2023.

Citation KeyZhang2023