THE DETAILS: The authors recruited 2,203 couples (average age 66) from a population of older adults participating in a health and retirement study. The couples answered survey questions about their health status and their levels of conscientiousness and neuroticism. Conscientious individuals—task-oriented, careful planners comfortable with delayed gratification—reported themselves as healthier compared with those who weren’t conscientious, and their spouses also reported themselves as healthier. Neurotic, conscientious husbands were more likely to have wives who reported themselves as healthy, as well. But neurotic, conscientious wives didn’t seem to improve the health of their husbands.
WHAT IT MEANS: Neuroticism apparently produces some positive outcomes, says lead author Brent Roberts, PhD, Romano professorial scholar in psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “Psychologists often wonder why neuroticism is in humans if it’s a bad thing,” he says. “We know it’s negative for some relationships, but there may be certain situations in which it’s not as bad as it normally is. We call [that] the ‘nag effect.’”
It’s not surprising to see that people in relationships can have an influence on each other’s perceived health, says Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. But why the differences arise when it comes to neuroticism may just be chalked up to the differences between Mars and Venus. “A man may be more likely to interpret his neurotic wife's health advice as coming from neurotic worrying,” he says. “A woman may be more likely to interpret her neurotic husband's health advice as coming from genuine caring for her welfare.”
If you wish your spouse would pay more attention to the health advice you’re offering, consider these tips:
• Know the difference between nagging and giving thoughtful advice. Your spouse may think you’re nagging, even if you don’t think you are. And your spouse’s perception can prevent your message from getting through. So try expressing your thoughts in different ways until you find some that work. “There is a real art to giving your spouse advice about health habits, especially because nagging is sometimes in the eye of the beholder,” says Rossman. If you’re married to a man who’s not heeding what you’re saying, he advises telling your husband that you’re concerned about his health and asking if you can share a few ideas with him.
• Clip out articles. Married to a skeptic? Support your argument with cold hard facts. Sometimes, knowing that the information is coming from a credible, professional source makes it easier to digest, Rossman notes.
• Recommend that your spouse speak with a professional. Why talk till you’re blue in the face, when you can let someone else do the convincing? “Sometimes it’s easier to receive recommendations from a professional than from your spouse,” Rossman says. Just resist the impulse to say “I told you so” to your mate after the appointment.