Rehearsal for survivorship: a qualitative analysis of later life husbands and wives

TR Number
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Virginia Tech

A review of the literature on adjustment to widowhood and survivorship reveals gaps in qualitative and quantitative studies which explore anticipatory processes for this expectable life event. Studies focusing on men anticipating this time of life are rare to non-existent. This is a qualitative study on the anticipatory processes (cognitive, emotional and behavioral) of individuals and couples. The theoretical underpinnings for the study are drawn from symbolic interactionist ideas of how individuals settle on a personal and functional reality and from the ideas of Peter Berger and his associates on how the marital conversation stabilizes the individual's sense of the world. Fourteen long-married couples ages 50 to 80 were interviewed. They are Caucasian, middle and upper-middle class people, married from 29 to 49 years. The first part of the study examines the following: whether people have a prediction relative to which of the couple will probably die first; whether members of the couple hold the same prediction; what factors inform such a prediction, and how much discussion there is of this topic. It was found that about one-half of the informants have a stable prediction and that three couples held the same view. Three typologies, the CLEARS, those IN PROCESS and the VAGUES, were used to describe the prediction behavior of the 28 participants. Among the seven factors highlighted were the sense of one's genetic inheritance, belief in the “common wisdom" that husbands pre-decease their wives, and observations of one's own energy level relative to one's partner. The second part of the study explores the worries and concerns of men and women as they look forward to a time without the life partner. The study uncovers the actions they take at present and actions they believe they would take in the future to best perform daily routines and to deal with emotional and relationship needs. It was found that the men and women envision their futures differently, that men anticipate the likelihood of remarriage and tend to see remarriage as a pleasant coping strategy. Women show a disinclination to remarry emphasizing the trade-offs of marriage. Their strategies are more varied, and are more likely to be based on observations of widowed women throughout their lives. Finally, the participants' religious and philosophical attitudes, broad enough to encompass death and loneliness, are noted.