Prior research has shown that the experience of widowhood differs for men and women. Following widowhood, women are more likely than men to suffer economic strains and to receive social support from their children. On the other hand, men are more likely to have difficulties handling household tasks that had been previously done by their wives. However, it has not been clear whether these and other gender differences have stronger or more prolonged adverse effects on the psychological well-being of men or women. To address this question, researchers examined the experiences of widows and widowers over a 14-year period, and compared them to individuals who were continuously married over that period.
This study’s longitudinal design allowed for a detailed examination of the possible trajectories for psychological well-being following widowhood. Researchers were able to examine the psychological well-being of some widows and widowers both before and after widowhood, which gave them a pre-widowhood baseline. Another advantage of this study was that factors such as age at widowhood and remarriage could be taken into account. Since early widowhood is more likely to be sudden or unexpected, in earlier research it has been associated with more psychological distress and difficulty in adjusting. And there are observed differences between men and women in terms of both duration of widowhood and likelihood of early widowhood. Men are likely to have shorter widowhood durations, due to higher rates of both remarriage and mortality. On the other hand, women are more likely to experience early widowhood.
This study looked at three different populations: individuals who were continuously married, those who were widowed before the study began, and those who were widowed during the 14-year duration of the study. All of these participants were between 52 and 63 years old when the study began. Of the 504 individuals who were widowed prior to the study’s start, 87 percent were women. Women also made up 75 percent of the 929 individuals widowed at some point during the study’s duration. By comparison, the 4,642-person continuously married group was only 44 percent female. Of the total study population, 2.3 percent of men and 11 percent of women were widowed when the study began. By the end of the study, 10.4 percent of the men and 30 percent of the women had been widowed. Of the widowed participants, 19 percent of the men and 7 percent of the women had remarried by the end of the study. There were no gender differences in the likelihood of mortality for those who were widowed when the study began. However, for those widowed during the study, 16 percent of the men and 10 percent of the women died by the study’s conclusion.
Looking at symptoms of depression, this study shows that these diminish over time following widowhood. Interestingly, there were no gender differences in the rate of this decline of symptoms. This pattern was also not affected by an individual’s income or level of education. When examining the impact of an unexpected death, the researchers found that individuals whose deceased spouses were rated as being in excellent health prior to their death had the greatest increase in symptoms of depression. This was observed regardless of the widowed individual’s level of depression prior to the spouse’s death. Those individuals whose spouses were in excellent health prior to their death reported an increase in 3.6 symptoms of depression. Although they diminished over time, these symptoms had not completely subsided 30 months later. By contrast, those individuals whose deceased spouses were in poor health showed an average increase of two symptoms, and on average these had returned to pre-widowhood levels within two years after the spouse’s death.
Comparing individuals who were widowed at the start of the study to those who were married, the widowed individuals had a score that was 0.76 higher on the depression symptom scale used when the study began. This gap decreased over the 14 years of the study, but still remained at the end of the study. Again, no gender differences were seen.
The researchers concluded that previously observed findings on gender differences in widowhood appear to reflect differences in the timing and duration of widowhood, rather than simply gender differences in the psychological response to widowhood. They point to the impact of women being much more likely to be widowed earlier in life, as well as men’s greater likelihood of remarrying following widowhood. They also note that early and long-term widowhood is likely to lead to lasting implications for psychological well-being that are not seen on average for individuals who are widowed later in life. Lastly, women remain disadvantaged due to two trends: They are more likely to become widowed at an early age, and they are more likely to remain widowed for a longer time.
Sasson I and Umberson DJ. Widowhood and depression: new light on gender differences, selection, and psychological adjustment. Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences (2014); 69B: 135–145.