Strengthening Later Life Marriage

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A marriage that lasts through the years brings couples a sense of accomplishment, security, and comfort. Sometimes, though, security and comfort can make it easy to fall into the "old shoe syndrome," where married life becomes dull and partners take one another for granted. Treating a lasting marriage with the appreciation it deserves might be compared to seeing old, worn shoes as "plush suede" or "buttery-soft leather." Just as a proud owner of such shoes would never slosh them through a mud puddle but would carefully protect them, so should long-married couples give their partnership the deep regard it deserves.

An important part of that regard is to recognize that all marriages, no matter how long they've lasted, need to be guarded and protected. Loving acts are critical, including acceptance, empathy, appreciation, concern, and affection. Researchers have found, unfortunately, that these caring behaviors tend to decrease as marriages age. So even if your marriage has lasted the test of time, be forewarned that it remains vulnerable. All marriages, no matter how enduring, require ongoing maintenance.

Practical Suggestions for Safeguarding Your Marriage

To protect your marriage as the years pass, practice the principles that social scientists have found in lasting marriages:

  • Treat each other as best friends. Just as you overlook irritating traits in a friend, look past your partners flaws and focus on his or her endearing qualities. Have fun with your partner, laugh together, and share your thoughts and feelings. Give your love freely and unselfishly -- without keeping score or feeling that you're sacrificing. As you do, you will encourage loving behavior from your spouse, creating a cycle where giving love creates love. You may find yourself surprised and delighted to discover a fresh perception of your beloved, which inevitably develops when you love freely.

  • Unite as allies.Years of companionship tend to ease sharp differences between spouses, making it easier to feel like a team. Even when differences still come up, they feel less threatening because love and commitment have grown. Spouses now enjoy one another's different strengths and divergent perspectives. They've learned that with their spouses complementary traits, they can reach difficult goals they couldn't achieve on their own. Value, enjoy, and build on this unity.

  • Treat intimate knowledge with care. The intimate knowledge of one another that spouses gain over the years creates a strong, enduring alliance. This intimate knowledge, however, must be used only in loving service of ones partner. If it is ever misused, the sense of violation will go deeper than in a younger marriage, creating more damaging resentment, sadness, and disappointment. Thus it becomes even more important in older marriages to admit wrongs, apologize when necessary, and change behavior as needed.

  • Continue personal development. Individual interests add needed freshness to a marriage. Separate friends and activities help each partner continue personal growth and keep a healthy network of support. This balance between individuality and togetherness can be delicate. As you pursue interests, keep your spouse as your top priority and maintain a loving awareness of his or her needs. A good golf game with buddies can be renewing, but not if its at the expense of time with your spouse. Personal growth can benefit both spouses if its kept within reasonable boundaries. Karen, for example, decided after 29 years of caring for her family that it was her turn to follow interests outside her home. She chose valuable pursuits, but one evening she looked across the room at her husband and realized she was neglecting him and their marriage. She reworked her priorities, deciding to continue her new interests by putting her husband back at the top of the list.

  • Have faith in God. Researchers have found that personal commitment to religion tends to increase marital commitment and even improves couples communication and problem solving skills. But statistics alone don't tell the full story. When two people rely on God to help them overcome the inevitable challenges of living together, marriage becomes a deeply spiritual commitment where partners, separately and together, are fortified by the strength and power of their Creator.

  • Increase flexibility. During later life, new challenges often arise, including career changes, older children, retirement, and health issues. As these challenges make new demands on your marriage, be flexible and willing to adjust.

    1. Careers. Careers evolve over time as companies make new policies, workplaces modernize, or new employees are added to the picture. These changes can feel threatening and may make you feel angry and frustrated. If you generalize these feelings to your home life, you will harm your family relationships. Instead, discuss work problems with your spouse so that he or she understands your challenges and can support you as you work them out.

    2. Parenting. As children move into adolescence, they struggle to establish their separate identity. Conflict with parents increases, typically over issues such as clothes, driving, school, and friends. This friction often spills over into the marital relationship. It can help to realize that conflict with teenagers is part of normal development. Rather than blaming your spouses deficient parenting for your teenagers latest escapade, understand that children's behavior is not always related to good or bad parenting skills. Lean on each other during disappointing times and soothe painful wounds with the healing salve of love.

      Another stress on older marriages in the increasing rate of adult children returning home ("boomerang children"), often for financial support while they continue education, make career changes, or adjust to a divorce. Research gives encouraging evidence that older parents can meet the challenges of boomerang children while still maintaining their own marriage. To minimize conflict and protect your marriage, establish clear understanding about roles and expectations before consenting to adult children moving back in.

    3. Retirement. A smooth transition into retirement takes planning. Prepare by having a sound financial strategy and by carefully planning what you want to do and accomplish together. Also, be very clear about post-retirement expectations of each other, especially regarding housework. Wives satisfaction with husbands help around the house is an important factor in retirement adjustment. Because of extra time together after retirement, strengths and weaknesses may become easier to spot. Couples usually have a period of increased friction but then are able to enjoy retirement. If you expect this adjustment period and treat it as normal, you'll be more equipped to focus on the positives in your relationship and more able to continue building your love and companionship.

    4. Interchanging Roles. Husband-wife roles tend to blur over the years. When spouses do jobs that traditionally belong to the other spouse, both feel cared for and treated fairly. The Family: A Proclamation to the World states, "In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners" (¶ 7). As new situations arise, such as retirement, you may find increased conflict. Because conflict has so much power to erode relationships, make resolving conflict a high priority. As you negotiate and work through these new situations your bond with one another will be stressed and stretched, but the ultimate result will be a marital relationship with greater resiliency and strength.

    5. Sexual Intimacy. When both partners are healthyaging does not lead to decreased interest in or enjoyment from sex. Research shows, for example, that the common idea that menopause disrupts a couples sex life is false. In fact, most couples make any needed adjustments and continue the same intimate patterns they established over the years. It can be reassuring during these adjustments to maintain a positive attitude toward sexuality and to recognize the blessings of a life-long, dedicated partner.

    6. Grandparenting. As spouses love and serve their grandchildren, they enjoy discovering together new ways of expressing love and finding fulfillment. Watching your spouse grow into this new role can become a fresh way to appreciate his or her personality and characteristics. Husbands and wives who see loving interactions between their partners and grandchildren tend to find their admiration and love growing for one another.

    7. Illness. Research indicates that 86% of all those over age 65 will experience chronic illness of some kind. Contrary to common misconceptions, caring for an ill spouse does not have to diminish marital satisfaction. If spouses make sure that they continue to fully communicate, marriages can weather these challenges.

Written by Mary A. Stosich, Research Assistant, and edited by Richard Miller and Stephen F. Duncan, Professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


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