Remaining Happily Married as We Age

A senior married couple laughing

By Dr. Rob Crankshaw

Early in my career as a marriage counselor, one of the first surprises I encountered was a couple that had been married 42 years coming for relationship counseling. I thought, “What can I tell them they don’t already know? What is it they have not worked out in 42 years of marriage?”

I soon realized that no marriage is immune from difficulties. While some research shows older married couples weather conflict better than younger couples, aging itself may bring with it troubles that amplify marital problems.

For instance, aging and disease often bring personality changes that are subtle or unnoticeable to the public, yet are disturbing to the long-term marriage. As both men and women live longer, more marriages are affected by these changes.

Some of these changes may be paranoid thinking—such as a spouse questioning the other’s fidelity or commitment to the marriage—or an increase in obsessive attention to issues that were previously considered unimportant—like a wife suddenly being fearful of her husband’s driving or a husband needing increased assurance that his wife is within his sight or calling distance. These changes can upset the long-established balance of the relationship.

Other normal aging issues are the tendency to do less filtering of emotional responses, sometimes bluntly saying things that are hurtful to a spouse who had never heard those responses before; or becoming more inwardly focused as we process our life review, which may appear to a loved one to be withdrawal, insensitivity and selfishness. Unresolved dependency issues sometimes surface as we begin to face the possibility of life without a spouse and with children living far away. Feelings of abandonment with depression and/or rage may surface and seriously affect the marriage and other relationships.

Another common problem is the frustration experienced by a spouse as they see the other slip into senility. Changes in behaviors can be interpreted as deliberate attempts to be obstinate or frustrating. Anger, fear and denial are common responses as one sees their spouse begin to lose short-term memory, abilities, and to experience the confusion of senility. It may be easier in some instances to accept the death of a spouse than to watch them slowly losing the qualities and personality that you have known for many years.

A strong support group of friends and relatives is essential to coping with these changes in the relationship. It is also helpful for caretakers to maintain a schedule of recreational and creative activities. Talk therapy can be helpful and equip both spouses with coping strategies. Of course, eating properly and getting rest and respite are essential, too.

Dr. John Gottman, probably the most well respected researcher in marriage dynamics, has found some interesting differences between the ways older couples interact as opposed to younger couples. These differences tell us how successful couples handle conflict. The implications of Gottman’s research give us a very useful and down-to-earth blueprint for handling communication in difficult marital conversations at any age.

  1. Older couples used a “soft start-up” to discussing conflict, as opposed to a “harsh start-up” often employed by younger couples. In a soft start-up, a spouse may begin with, “I feel ________”, whereas a harsh start-up may begin with, “You never ________” or “You always ________.” Even though the topic may be serious, starting the dialogue with the least emotional expression is likely to be heard by your spouse with the least defensiveness or resistance.
  2. Older couples followed the start-up with what Gottman called “positive continuance.” When one spouse brought up a concern or complaint, the other spouse often followed with a statement of empathy or understanding rather than defensiveness or denial. An understanding response, such as “you really feel strongly about that” or “I can understand why you feel that way,” goes a long way to helping you both work through the issue and still feel emotionally close.
  3. Gottman found older couples managed to express more affection and less negative emotion (anger, disappointment, frustration, contempt) when discussing problems than younger couples did. Remember to validate your spouse, even during conflict discussions. This is often the time we are least prone to being complementary, but listening to your spouse and understanding the feelings behind the complaint are not the same as agreeing with their point of view. We feel validated and encouraged when we are truly listened to, and one is most apt to be open to honest discussion when there is no fear of attack, humiliation or criticism.
  4. Older couples used more humor and validation during conflict than younger couples did.

One of the first rules of marriage is “do not try to win an argument with your spouse!” You might think you can win the argument, but what is lost in the relationship is long lasting. Only 31% of marital conflicts can be solved. The other 69% represent differences in personality, personal philosophies, and life-learned lessons which cannot be solved or changed, but can only be understood and tolerated. We all know tolerance and understanding are important virtues in marriage!

Marital conflict is difficult, but unavoidable in long-term relationships. How we handle those conflict moments makes a tremendous difference in how satisfied we are in marriage and in our hope of growing old and happy together.

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