It is a finding drawn from a study by a team of researchers including John M. Ruiz, an assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University, as well as Karen A. Matthews and Richard Schulz, at the University of Pittsburgh, and Michael F. Scheier with Carnegie Mellon University.
The study involved 111 coronary artery bypass patients and their spouses. The researchers assessed aspects of personality, symptoms of depression, and the marital satisfaction of each patient and his spouse prior to, and 18 months following, surgery.
The main finding was that within couples, the personality of one person predicted the depression level of their partner 18 months later. The results were published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“We’ve known for some time that a patient’s personality and mood before surgery influence their own mental and physical recovery following surgery,” Ruiz said. “We also know that a partner’s personality and mood can affect us in the short term. What this work shows is that a partner’s personality traits are also important determinants of our own long-term emotional and physical recovery from a major health challenge.”
The research demonstrated that a patient married to a generally neurotic and anxious spouse was more likely to report symptoms of depression 18 months after surgery.
“In other words, the spouse’s personality – quite independent of the patient’s own personality – exhibited a major influence on how well the patient was feeling and progressing towards recovery,” he said.
Depression is an important consideration in the treatment of cardiac patients as it is increasingly recognized as a significant risk factor in heart attacks and death.
“Our study suggests that there’s a distinct possibility that the spouse’s personality can increase depression which may then lead to these negative physical outcomes. It’s an issue we will be looking at as we continue to follow these patients and as part of new studies here at WSU.”
The study also focused on how the spouses of patients coped over the course of the study.
“Spouses are often times a major source of daily care and take on many of the roles that the couple may have previously shared,” Ruiz said. “We found that the same effects seen for patients also applied to spouses. Those spouses who cared for a person who was generally neurotic and anxious were more likely to report symptoms of depression as well as high levels of caregiving burden and strain a year and a half later.”
“We don’t really understand what it is that a spouse with these negative personality traits is doing to cause this depression in their partner,” he said. “Are they creating more stress, being less helpful, or burdening a person who is already having a difficult time with their own needs? It’s a question that needs more study.”
Ruiz notes that not all of the findings were negative. Optimism in one spouse appeared to have beneficial effects for the partner.
“Spouses caring for an optimistic, as opposed to a pessimistic, patient reported fewer depressive symptoms and significantly less burden and strain over time.”
But Ruiz points out that we are hardly helpless when it comes to our spouse’s personality and how it affects us. He said there is a “silver lining” in the findings, which suggests that a person’s degree of satisfaction with their marriage is a key influence.
“Being married to a neurotic, anxious person was only harmful for those who were unhappy in their marriage,” Ruiz said. “For those happy in their marriage, spouse neuroticism appeared to have little influence. Hence, the findings highlight the importance of personality in marriage and health, but also support the notion that ‘love conquers all.”