Late-life husband and wife relationships are increasingly recognised as an important factor in promoting wellbeing, particularly in terms of the health, social, emotional, financial and practical needs of older people. Knowledge of marital dynamics and how they affect both members of a couple remains scarce. This systematic review aimed to identify and appraise research that has focused explicitly on the dynamics of the relationship, as evinced by data from both spouses. Implementing rigorous identification strategies, 45 articles were identified and reviewed. These studies were grouped into three broad thematic areas: marital relations and satisfaction; concordance in emotional state or physical health; and the interplay between marital quality and wellbeing. The issues found to affect marital relations and satisfaction in late life included equality of roles, having adequate communication, and transitions to living apart. There is strong evidence for couple concordance in depression, that marital relationships affect ill-health, longevity and recovery from illness, and reciprocally that ill-health impacts on the marriage itself. The research also suggests important gender differences in the impact of marital dynamics on health. It has led to the conclusion that there is a need for more diverse studies of late-life marriages, particularly ones that examine the dynamics of non-traditional elderly couples and that extend beyond a predominant focus on the Caucasian population of the United States.
(Accepted July 15 2008)