Why Widows Deal With Chronic Pain Better Than Married Folks

Getty ImagesPlenty has been said about the health perks, both physical and emotional, of marriage. But now researchers have discovered a surprising benefit of being widowed: It allows you to be more capable of dealing with chronic pain than  anyone else. “What we found, quite frankly, blew us away,” lead researcher James Wade, professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University, tells Yahoo Shine.

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For the study, published in September in the journal Pain Research and Treatment, Wade and his colleagues studied 1,914 patients with chronic pain. “These were people dealing with an intense threat to their lives,” Wade explains. “And pain stinks. You feel anxious, depressed; you’re unable to even take out the trash.”

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What they were looking for, he says, was a positive connection between being married and being better equipped to deal with the pain and all that comes with it. But what they found was just the opposite. “The relationship that was clear as day here was, if you were a widow or widower, you were much better able to deal with the suffering of chronic pain,” Wade notes. 

At first the researchers theorized that it must have been the older survivors who were strongest, as they were most likely benefiting from “age-related wisdom.” However, the study controlled for ethnicity, severity of pain and age, skewing to an average age of 41. They also looked into the possibility that widowers were more “cuddly”— receiving more social support by those around them than others—but that explanation didn’t pan out either. Finally, they thought, perhaps those who had lost spouses were looking at their pain with a different, less intense perspective than the others, but that, too, proved false.

“The only thing the widows and widowers differed on, even from those who had been divorced or separated, was that you lost a spouse by virtue of nothing you had control over,” Wade says. So the researchers were left with the conclusion, he adds, that, “Because you were forced to deal with one of life’s greatest losses, you came out of it stronger. It’s this human spirit that’s resilient.”

Francine Russo, in Time magazine, writes about how she was intrigued by the new study from a personal perspective. After being widowed suddenly at the age of 46, with two daughters, she had to learn how to take on everything in the household alone. “But most of all, I had to cope with my own pain,” she writes. “Unlike other blows life had dealt me — breakups, professional failures — I could not assuage it with the comfort of friends. It was like a fire I had to walk through to get to the other side. And I did, eventually, even with a few scars. Since then, I have felt stronger to deal with life’s wounds.”

While some psychologists and pain experts tell Russo that they think Wade’s research needs more investigating, others find it promising. Simon Rego, a psychology professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, for example, says it sounds logical that because widowhood and its emotional consequences are unavoidable, those who have lost a spouse may wind up honing their coping skills as a way to survive.

Grief counselor Robert Zucker, author of “The Journey Through Grief and Loss: Helping Yourself and Your Child When Grief Is Shared,” tells Yahoo Shine that he finds news of the study to be fascinating. He wonders, though, how newly bereaved the widowed folks in the study were.

“I’d be surprised if [newly bereaved] people were managing better, because you tend to be so shattered early on in the process,” Zucker says. “But I can understand the idea that grief transforms people in some way. There’s something called ‘posttraumatic growth,’ which says that going through a loss and coming out the other end strengthens our spirit and gives us the experience we need to better handle adversity.”

Finally, Wade finds the study’s findings to be uplifting. “I need to let people know [what we’ve found] because people are living longer and very well may outlive their spouses, and they have a lot of anxiety about how they’re going to cope,” he notes. “This provides us with good news. On average, they come out stronger.”

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