Couples and Aging
Glenn Brynes, PhD, MD

Of course marriage at age 65 is different from when you were 25. The reasons are many and varied. One important factor is the time period when the two people first learned about relationships. People who were born before 1940 have different expectations about roles and relationships than people who were born in the 1970's.

How couples deal with aging depends on how well the couple works together to adapt to changing demands.

Empty Nest: Raising children can absorb a tremendous amount of energy. It also provides structure and a sense of purpose. When (and if) the marriage survives this intense child rearing period intact, couples often feel relief mixed with sadness. There are now opportunities to direct energies toward personal goals that were previously deferred.   

Retirement: Depending the couple’s previous roles within the marriage, retirement may require different types of coping skills. For many couples retiring today, the wife has been a homemaker and the husband has worked outside the home. It is common for there to be some 'turf' conflicts when the husband is around the house more. A retired husband may continue to expect his wife to do the housework while he 'takes it easy'. The wife may expect the housework to be reapportioned. While the traditional wife may not change her routine much, her retired husband must adjust to a loss of many sources of self-worth and social support from his job. When the dust settles from this transition, the increased involvement with each other can bring a couple closer together.

Sexual functioning: Sexual interest and performance change with age. Some couples have an active sexual life into their 70's and beyond. For others, changes in sexual functioning can affect the marriage. If sexual intimacy helps hold the relationship together; they may feel that a source of closeness is lost. Some couples can learn to show affection in different ways.

Dependency: As our bodies age, we experience changes in vision, hearing, reaction time and physical strength. Some degree of change is nearly universal. Other kinds of changes are not normal, and constitute disease. With age, many people acquire a number of relatively stable chronic illnesses that may affect their ability to function. Sometimes one spouse must take over responsibilities that the other one used to handle. This may involve physical tasks (carrying laundry upstairs) or intellectual tasks. (paying bills).

Serious Illness and Mortality: The appearance of an illness that might severely limit one’s functioning can cause a marital crisis. The affected spouse may fear helplessness, loss of independence, pain and death. The healthy spouse may worry that he will have to see his mate deteriorate, suffer or die. He may also fear being pushed beyond the limit of his ability to care for his spouse. It may be comforting to share feelings about what is happening and what may come to pass. The  alternative is a barrier of silence.

Ideally, the years of knowing and learning about one another can help couples to give each other the emotional support and understanding they need to cope with these changes. 

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Carol Watkins, M.D.
Glenn Brynes, Ph.D., M.D.
Rita Preller, LCSW-C

Copyright © 2004  Northern County Psychiatric Associates
Last modified: January 29, 2005