“Death cannot stop true love,” handsome Westley assures us in one of the most quotable movies of all time, The Princess Bride. And according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, he’s right.
Researchers at the University of Arizona found that one when spouse passes away, his or her characteristics continue to be linked with the surviving husband or wife’s well-being. In fact, the link is as strong as that between two partners who are both still alive.
“The people we care about continue to influence our quality of life even when we they are gone,” wrote lead researcher Kyle Bourassa, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Arizona. “We found that a person’s quality of life is as interwoven with and dependent on their deceased spouse’s earlier quality of life as it is with a person they may see every day.”
The study built on previous research Bourassa and his colleagues had done on the concept of synchrony, or interdependence, between two romantic partners. They had found that one person’s health and cognitive functioning affects not only their own well-being, but also the well-being of their partner. Intrigued by this, Bourassa and his group decided to examine if this correlation continues even after the death of one spouse.
To find out, they tapped into data from a longitudinal study of 80,000 aging adults in 18 European counties and Israel. They looked at information from 2,566 couples where both partners were still living, and 546 couples where one partner had died during the study. As the researchers expected, a participant’s quality of life earlier in the study was associated with his or her partner’s quality of life later in the study. What was surprising, though, was that this parallel remained, even when one partner had died.
“This accentuates how important relationships are for our well-being, but the findings cut two ways – if a participant’s quality of life was low prior to his or her death, then this could take a negative toll on the partner’s later quality of life as well,” explained Bourassa.
Researchers think that the act of reminiscing about a deceased spouse is what helps maintain the synchrony. As Bourassa writes, “Even though we lose the people we love, they remain with us, at least in part.”
Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!