Debra Umberson

Sociology professor Debra Umberson speaks about marriage Friday afternoon. According to Umberson, men receive more emotional benefits from marriage than their partners do.
Photo Credit: Joshua Guerra | Daily Texan Staff

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.”

Black men are more likely to experience hardships with relationships and health issues as adults, according to UT researchers.

The study, headed by sociology professor Debra Umberson, surveyed black and white men and women and asked them about childhood adversity, their health and relationships as adults over a 15-year period.

“There are very clear racial disparities in health in the United States, and we know that there are very clear racial differences in levels of childhood adversity,” Umberson said.

During the study, researchers defined adversity to include financial difficulties, stress, having parents with mental illnesses and the death of a parent before the age of 16. Umberson said the quality of social relationships during childhood factors into adult health.

“Relationships, just like education and income, aren’t equally distributed in the population,” Umberson said. “Some groups are more disadvantaged than others. Black men are especially disadvantaged in terms of their relationships in adulthood.”

University of Ohio associate professor Kristi Williams, who worked on the study while a student at UT, said she believes the government needs to focus on improving the conditions black men face as children in order to improve their adult lives.

“Interventions that focus only on proximal causes, such as relationship skills, are likely to be ineffective if they don’t address the more fundamental causes linked to poverty and cumulative disadvantage over the life course,” Williams said.

Sociology graduate student Mieke Thomeer, who worked with Umberson on the study, said improving employment of parents and improving mental health care would be helpful.

Umberson said men’s reactions to stress causes them disadvantages.

“When [men] face stress [they] are more likely to engage in that fight-or-flight response,” Umberson said.

Women buy more gifts than men for Valentine’s Day, even though men spend more money for their significant other, according to a study conducted by UT professor.

Angeline Close, an assistant professor of advertising, conducted research on this topic over a seven-year period for her doctorate. Eventually she realized that while men will spend more on gifts for a significant other, women buy for more people, so their expenses are similar.

“Most companies tend to focus on the male because they have a market obligation,” Close said. “Women spend at least the same, if not more, because we conceptualize love in a much broader way than just romantic.”

Total spending for Valentine’s Day is projected to reach $18.6 billion, according to the National Retail Foundation. Men are expected to spend an average of $175.61 on gifts for their significant other, while women will spend an average of $88.78 to celebrate with their partner. 

The foundation did not release information on how much money women and men spend on Valentine’s Day overall, including platonic purchases, which is where Close said women spend more than men.

“Women receive cards and send small gifts to girlfriends, mothers, grandmothers, sisters and to a lesser extent, colleagues and neighbors,” Close said in the book “Gender, Culture and Consumer Behavior.” “These gender-based expectations and behaviors evolve over the course of a lifetime, and roles develop along with the person as she matures into womanhood and motherhood.”

Close also found that most subjects had conflicting feelings about Valentine’s Day. Most debate and discussion about Valentine’s Day occurs the week of the holiday, Close said, although she found that many of her subjects had pent up emotions about the event. 

“The most ironic twist of all of my research — although it is the holiday of love — there is a lot of resistance to it because of the commercialization of what is supposed to be a natural human emotion,” Close said.

Sociology professor Debra Umberson said Close’s findings fit with what is known about gender roles within relationships because women tend to have lots of people they confide in, whereas men usually only confide in their spouse.

“Women just have more close relationships than men do,” Umberson said. “Women are the kin-keepers. So if they have kids, women are the ones who are going to maintain family ties and organize family gatherings. 

Journalism sophomore Michael Aaron said that while he didn’t know if Close’s findings reflect gender roles, the results make sense to him. 

“So usually I would only buy a Valentine’s Day gift for a significant other. But I can attest to the fact that women would probably spend more, because my mom always buys things for me and my two brothers and my dad,” Aaron said.

In a nutshell women are thoughtful, Umberson said.

“They don’t just do it on Valentine’s Day, they do it all year long,” Umberson said. “Whereas men do it when someone tells them to, like on Valentine’s Day.” 

According to a study conducted by UT’s Population Research Center, weight gained during the time of pregnancy can last more than just nine months and affects both mothers and fathers.

A study by sociology professor and faculty research associate, Debra Umberson, found parents gain more weight throughout life than adults who choose not to have children.

“The data are from a national sample of over 3,600 people in the United States,” Umberson said. “They were followed over a 15-year period and interviewed four times over that period.”

The goal of the study was to find social factors relating to weight gain, Umberson said, because excess weight contributes to morbidity and mortality risk. She realized the majority of the overweight people studied were parents, therefore discovering a factor of weight gain.

“Parents have less time to exercise and eat regular meals with their children, plus snacks,” Umberson said.

Women are usually associated with growing dress sizes during pregnancy, but men experience the same increases because of dramatically altered lifestyle choices, Umberson said. Lifestyle choices usually associated with men are aspects such as a sudden decrease in exercising, cessation of alcohol consumption and use of cigarettes, Umberson said, and the body must readjust to every change.

Having multiple children adds more weight to the amount of weight gained from the first child, the study shows. Umberson said this is because of the biological effects on women, as well as the added constraints and more responsibilities.

Umberson said those who have children around age 27 experience the least amount of weight gain. If under the age of 27, parents lacking higher education degrees are less likely to complete school, and therefore gain low socio-economic standing. Umberson said lower-class families are more likely to eat less healthy meals. She said those above 27 have children at a time when it is normal to gain weight, and so they battle two factors of weight gain.

“Living with a child is always a period of more rapid weight gain,” Umberson said.

These findings show the importance of both men and women maintaining a healthy weight before and after having children, Umberson said.

English freshman Susana Naranjo said she can see the effect raising her little brother has had on her parent’s weight.

“I think adults with children gain more weight because they get accustomed to feeding their children whatever is quick and easy even if it is not very healthy, and soon, they just join their children in eating the unhealthy food,” Naranjo said.

The result of the study is not surprising to psychology freshman Morgan Harnois.

“Parents tend to focus more on their child than themselves, so it makes sense that they’d gain weight,” Harnois said.