ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2023, Vol. 55 ›› Issue (4): 600-611.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2023.00600

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

The relationship between internal working models of attachment and marital satisfaction among older adults: an analysis based on couple data

QIANG Yuanyan1, CAO Xiancai2,3,4, WANG Dahua1()   

  1. 1Institute of Developmental Psychology, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China
    2Key Research Base of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Ministry of Education; Academy of Psychology and Behavior, Tianjin Normal University
    3Faculty of Psychology, Tianjin Normal University, Tianjin 300387, China
    4Tianjin Social Science Laboratory of Students’ Mental Development and Learning, Tianjin 300387, China
  • Published:2023-04-25 Online:2022-12-30
  • Contact: WANG Dahua


Individuals form internal working models (IWMs) based on their early attachment experiences. IWMs consist of individuals’ views of themselves (i.e., IWM of the self) and others (i.e., IWM of others) within relationships. IWMs guide individuals’ interpretations and anticipations in interpersonal situations, which could influence their interactions with others and the quality of their relationships. As social networks shrink with age, older adults tend to focus more on relationships with close others. Due to the importance of marital relationships in late adulthood, the study examined whether and how older adults’ IWMs affect their marital satisfaction. In addition, the study also examined whether the differences in family roles between husbands and wives impact the relationship between IWMs and marital satisfaction.

The main purpose of this study is threefold: 1) To examine whether IWM of the self and IWM of others show different relationships with marital satisfaction; 2) To investigate whether the relationships between older adults’ IWMs and their marital satisfaction are mediated by marital attachment (i.e., the anxiety and the avoidance dimensions of marital attachment); 3) To explore the actor and the partner effects of IWMs on marital satisfaction by modeling couple data with the Actor-Partner Interdependence Model (APIM). In order to gain a better understanding of whether traditional family roles have an impact on the relationship between IWMs and marital satisfaction, we also examined whether the effects mentioned above differed between husbands and wives.

A total of 112 older couples (mean age = 69.3, SD = 5.02) from communities in Beijing were recruited to participate in this study. Participants completed the demographic information questionnaire, the Elderly Marital Attachment Questionnaire, the Relationship Questionnaire, and the Marriage Satisfaction Questionnaire. SPSS 23.0 and Dyad R were used to perform data analyses, including correlation analysis, mediation modeling, APIM, and analysis of variance (ANOVA).

The study yielded several major results. 1) Correlation analysis showed that husbands’ IWM of the self (but not IWM of others) was positively associated with marital satisfaction (r = 0.25, p = 0.008), while wives’ IWM of others (but not IWM of the self) was positively associated with marital satisfaction (r = 0.19. p = 0.041).

2) Mediation modeling showed that the association between husbands’ IWM of the self (but not IWM of others) and marital satisfaction was mediated by attachment anxiety and avoidance (95% CI = [0.454]; 95% CI = [0.340]). In contrast, neither attachment anxiety nor attachment avoidance significantly mediated the relationships between wives’ IWMs and marital satisfaction.

3) APIM showed that husbands’ IWM of the self was positively associated with their own marital satisfaction (B = 0.436, p = 0.010), while wives’ IWM of others was positively associated with their own (B = 0.471, p = 0.014) and spouses’ marital satisfaction (B = 0.384, p = 0.052). All other unidirectional paths in the APIM were non-significant.

4) ANOVA showed that husbands (but not wives) reported higher marital satisfaction when both husbands and wives had highly positive IWM of the self (F(3, 108) = 4.177, p = 0.008, η² = 0.104). In other words, husbands reported higher marital satisfaction when their own IWM of the self was positive and matched with their wives’ IWM of the self.

The study supports the importance of IWMs of attachment in older adults’ marital satisfaction. Our findings suggest that positive IWMs benefit marital satisfaction in general. The significant mediation effects of attachment anxiety/avoidance (particularly in the relationship between husbands’ IWM of the self and marital satisfaction) suggest that IWMs may influence marital satisfaction by affecting anxiety-/avoidance-related thoughts and behaviors during spousal interaction. The study also reveals intriguing differences between husbands and wives with regards to the IWMs − marital satisfaction relationship. Specifically, marital satisfaction seems to be more strongly associated with IWM of the self among husbands, but more strongly associated with IWM of others among wives. These differences may be related to the traditional patriarchal values of Chinese families.

Key words: internal working model, attachment, marital satisfaction, assortative mating pattern, APIM