Women under more stress in marriages, according to sociology professor

Caleb Wong

Marriage is linked to health through sociological, behavioral, psychological and physiological “pathways,” according to sociology professor Debra Umberson. 

Women performed more “emotional work” in relationships compared to men, and men generally benefit from marriage more than women, Umberson said. Umberson presented her preliminary research Friday during a lecture hosted by UT’s Population Research Center.

Umberson said that although the labor force has become significantly more diversified, and more and more people opt out of marriage, women are still at more of a disadvantage in marital relationships than men. 

“If you look at things like inflammation and immune function, it looks like marriage is way worse for the health of women than for men,” Umberson said. “I think we also have to take into account that all things are not equal, that there is this relative disadvantage — this baseline disadvantage that women are providing more emotional support, providing more emotion work and social control and experiencing more relationship strain.”

Umberson presented anecdotes collected from a study on women and men who experienced severe stress, such as one partner’s diagnosis of a chronic illness, as a couple. Umberson said women still bore the brunt of relationship stress, putting their health second to their partner’s — even when they themselves were suffering.

“Women do emotion work whether they are the sick partner or the caregiver, whereas men don’t,” Umberson said.

Both partners in a marriage can challenge each other to maintain better health habits, according to Umberson.

“Partners influence each other’s health habits in various ways that then translate into better health,” Umberson said. “[When] your spouse is telling you, ‘Don’t eat so much,’ you’re pouring out the whiskey bottles or watering it down. Women do that to men more than men do that to women.” 

LBJ doctoral fellow Jaehee Choi said Umberson provided useful personal insight into marriage and health.

“I think I can apply this to my own relationships in the future,” Choi said. “It’s like a life lesson, and she’s actually studying it academically.”

Sociology graduate student Letisha Brown said Umberson’s work deserved more recognition.   

“This project is not getting as much attention as it should get, considering the changing dynamics of America,” Brown said. “Thinking about how this research is coming out of Texas … it’s amazing, and I think it’s going to be great.”