Experiencing the empty nest during marriage is highly normative in middle adulthood in the United States, yet scant longitudinal marital research has been conducted during this period. Establishing how spouses and marriages fare during the empty nest is important because marital functioning predicts an extensive set of older adults'outcomes in the later years of life, including physical, psychological, and financial health, and mortality. As well, midlife health and well-being reliably predict the developmental transition to old age. In this proposal, I set forth two specific aims to address gaps in our understanding of the role of the empty nest in middle adulthood marital functioning and health. First, I propose to examine empty nest status as a predictor of both marital functioning (quality and course) and health (mental and physical) for men and women over time, and to then test moderators of the longitudinal associations. Second, I propose to use dyadic data obtained from participants and their spouses to test within-couple associations between concurrent empty nest status and husbands'and wives'marital quality and health, respectively, and to again test moderators of these linkages. This proposal seeks to conduct these aims with value-added secondary analysis of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS). The WLS is uniquely suited to accomplish the proposed aims for several reasons. First, detailed interviews that spanned middle adulthood tracked participants'empty nest status, relationship functioning, and health over time. Here, sophisticated quantitative methods will appropriately handle longitudinal data. Additionally, the WLS incorporates marital functioning indicators of quality and course in a single study, offering the potential to reconcile disparate findings in the existing empty nest literature. Second, the WLS includes a spousal sub-sample, which will facilitate direct statistical tests comparing effects of the empty nest on marital quality and health for husbands versus wives. Again, appropriate dyadic quantitative modeling will be employed. Third, a broad array of theoretically-informed spouse and marriage characteristics will be tested as covariates and potential moderators, thereby elucidating protective and risk factors. Thus, the proposed research holds important implications for translational efforts designed to prevent and alleviate distress in partners and relationships. Identifying protective factors that encourage some spouses and marriages to thrive and endure in middle adulthood is critical to understanding the determinants of healthy aging and promoting public health.

Public Health Relevance

Experiencing the empty nest during marriage is highly normative for middle-aged adults in the United States. Establishing how spouses and their relationships fare during this period is critical for promoting successful aging, including physica, psychological, and financial health in later years of life. Findings from this research have the potential to benefit public health by identifying characteristics that place some spouses and marriages at risk for distress during the empty nest, thereby helping to prevent marital dysfunction and problems in midlife and later years.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Aging (NIA)
Small Research Grants (R03)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZAG1-ZIJ-3 (M1))
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Gerald, Melissa S
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University of Wisconsin Madison
Schools of Medicine
United States
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