The social networks of older adult couple and sexuality: evidence from National Social life, Health, and Aging Project

Ekaterina Baldina, Eehyun Kim, Sangmyung Shin, Yoosik Youm


Our work combines social contextual perspective on dyadic relationships and social network structural perspectives on health and well-being to understand older adult’s sexual relationships. Existing research about older adults’ sexuality is mainly focused on individual or intimate partner’s effects, while supradyadic influences that stem from a broader social network have remained mostly unexplored. We aim to demonstrate empirically that active involvement of spouse into one’s broader social network, which we define as spouse network overlap, is associated with sexual life. We (1) examine whether overlap between individuals’ spouse and his or her confidants in ego-centric network is associated with different dimensions of sexuality (sexual intercourse frequency, physical pleasure, emotional satisfaction); (2) provide a check on reverse relationships between spouse network overlap and sexuality using cross-lagged regression models; (3) investigate if marital quality might be potential mechanism mediating sexuality and spousal network overlap. We take advantage of a unique and rich set of panel data from the National Social Life Health and Aging Project. Our sample consists of 1,160 partnered older adults surveyed at Wave 2 (2010-2011) and Wave 3 (2015-2016). We restrict our sample to those who are age 60 and older. About 48% of American older adults in our sample remain sexually active after 60 years old. Among them, 77% have physically pleasurable intimate relationships, and 78% emotionally satisfied with their sexual life. The spouse of a respondent communicates with respondent’s confidants on average at least once in two week. First, we find that spouse network overlap associated with older adults’ sexuality characteristics. Further analysis shows that overlap in the non-kin network rather than in the kin network is associated with sexuality. Second, reverse causation check shows that sexuality characteristics do not predict spouse network overlap. Last, marital quality plays a buffering role in the effect of spouse overlap and sexuality. These findings highlight that spouses’involvement in the social life of each other can enhance the quality and frequency of sexual relationships. We discuss the possible mechanism and implications of this study for research about the sexuality of older adults and social relationships.

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