The Wisdom of Aging Couples

For several months now, I’ve been wanting to write about aging couples.  It’s relatively recent that I’ve been part of one.  I was a couple therapist and taught clinical practice for about thirty years.  In 1993, with my friend, Michael Glenn, I published a book called Couples; a few years later I published a book on the practice of therapy, Readiness and Change in Couple Therapy. The work was so absorbing and I was so well known to others as “the couple therapist” that it virtually defined me in those days.  This is a homecoming of sorts.

As I began to think about aging couples, though, I realized that my knowledge is a tad dated.  I had mostly worked with young and middle-aged couples.  So I began to talk with and read about couples in their sixties, seventies, and eighties.  They are different. But before I turn to older couples in my next essay, I want to tell you what I learned about the general social habits of old coots like me.

Here’s the headline: “Aging people experience more satisfaction and less conflict in relationships.”  They “report better quality ties with their children, more positive marriages, closer friendships, and an overall greater proportion of positive versus problem-ridden relationships than do middle-aged or young adults (1)”  For me, this conclusion defies expectations and stereotypes about grumpy, cantankerous old people.

According to researchers (2), as people age, they develop a “cognitive bias,” leading them to attend mostly to positive experiences while avoiding the negative.  That bias leads older people to structure their lives in ways that minimize stress.  They choose harmonious companions and avoid both people and situations that create difficulties.  What’s more, their judgment, their ability to determine who will be good for them and who won’ improves with the years.

When in contact with difficult people, elders are more adept at regulating what happens.  If discussions become stressful, for instance, they know how to deflect and defuse matters.   They ask and receive more and better support  than young people do from friends and spouses.(3).   “In sum, …, [they] learn how to…regulate their social and emotional experiences.” (4)

The natural course of life also lends itself to greater harmony.  After mid-life, for example, many people begin to shed their adolescent—and post-adolescent–children.  It turns out that the empty nest presents more of a sentimental than a real crisis.  For many couples, whose fights often revolved around their children, the departure is a great relief.  Then, too, leaving the tensions and pretensions of work also brings relief.

Not only are there fewer tensions, but older people interpret stressful experience in a calmer way.  For example, “When recalling…conflict discussions, older adults rate the behavior of their spouses more positively than do objective coders. By contrast, middle-aged spouses rate their spouses’ behavior similarly to the ratings of the objective viewers (5).  Long experience has taught older people that the pain won’t last, things that are said in anger do not represent the final or definitive word.  They are better able to re-interpret conflict, then defuse its longer term impact.

With age, people  say, they find greater support from friends and mates That calming support is often freely offered by friends but it is also actively sought.  Older people both receive and “express more sentimental and positive messages” than they did when younger.  The more they support others, the more the support is returned.  This creates what couple therapists call a “virtuous cycle.”  In other words, the calming of their social world is an active achievement.

What I have reported on so far tells us that older people, in general, have calmer, more satisfying relationships with both peers.  .  It doesn’t tell us why.  Several researchers do. They emphasize the “short horizon” in the lives of aging people.  “When perceived time grows shorter, individuals place a greater priority on present-oriented goals, such as regulating social experiences to maximize relationship satisfaction.”  Another researcher tells us that “Foreshortened time perspective in relationships with older adults also may lead to greater forgiveness for social grievances (2)”. “In addition to perceiving time remaining in their own lives, individuals perceive the time left within any given relationship. As the time left to spend with a social partner narrows, people may recognize this diminished horizon and focus increasingly on emotional harmony as opposed to other non-emotional goals (e.g., seeking information) in the relationship.”  The very fact of the relationship becomes more important than making it fuller or better.

People eventually learn what is pliable and what is not with friends and spouses.  After years and decades of trying to change one another, making the other more responsive or responsible, for example, we recognize the futility of our efforts.  It hasn’t worked.  We yield to what is and then we accept it.  Then there are two possibilities.   We can walk away or we can simply stop what has been a failing and dispiriting effort.  The very act of no longer failing is a relief; and a considerable calm comes over us.

There is a kind of death in the decision to accept people as they are, a sense that you will never fully achieve what you have been trying to do for a long, long time, and you will never fully have what you have so long wanted.  We have also put so much of ourselves into changing others, and that part of ourselves dies, too.  But it is that death that compels us to treasure who our friends and mates are and to savor the beauty of what is.   As the poet, Wallace Stevens, says,

“Death is the mother of beauty;  Hence from her,

Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams

And our Desires.”

 

  1. Fingerman, Hay, & Birditt, 2004; Rook, 1984; 2003
  2. Charles, Mather & Carstensen, 2003
  3. Field & Minkler, 1988; Schnittker, 2007
  4. Hess, Osowski, & LeClerc, 2005
  5. Story et al., 2007
  6. Field & Minkler, 1988; Schnittker, 2007

 

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7 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Aging Couples”

  1. Married a long time: One spouse says–“hey did you grab my butt just now”. Spouse 2: “Sorry, I was just looking for the remote”.

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  2. I did miss the weekly Barrygram. This has been a most stressful week with Jean having a second operation in 18 months to remove a growth on her pituitary gland. Recovery is going extremely well, but, for various reasons, the process has shaken my faith in the medical profession. We are approaching our 40th anniversary, and Jean is too much a part of me to calmly approach the risks of surgeries. I can even overlook the fact that she does not neatly roll up and clamp her toothpaste tube, but then we do have separate tubes.
    Your essay this week does strike a chord. Before my mostly retirement, I felt that every day was a struggle and had to contain a reasonable chance for failure in order to be meaningful. At this point, the race is done and I am just doing an extra lap or two to cool down. Hilary has found a job that she loves and people that she loves to work with, so that too removes a weight from my soul. But my empty nest syndrome remains, and I do treasure the times when she comes home.
    I do treasure old friends, but also enjoy swapping life stories with new friends as well. By this time in life, there is almost a detached feeling when speaking of the past. Almost, I wonder if I really did those things.
    Please keep up the posts and remain an integral part of our long history.
    Mitch

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    1. Dear Mitch,

      I hope that Jean makes it all the way through the surgery and that you can rest. I’m not sure about the tooth paste tube. That may be an impasse too far.

      Glad to hear that there are new friends to swap stories with. I often feel that they present opportunities to reinvent ourselves.

      Barry

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  3. I also see a parallel in the research on why older couples and people experience more satisfying relationships and the biblical commentary on why people are reported to live shorter lives after the flood narrative. Before the flood, the Bible recounts age spans in the multiple hundreds of years and subsequent to the flood just in the early hundreds. Some of the traditional Jewish commentators see in the text a statement that longer life spans gave people the impression and feeling that each day was less important or that there was always time to accomplish things. Shorter life spans emphasize the value of each day, each moment, and require people to focus on accomplishing their missions in life.

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    1. Mitch,

      Mitch,

      Thanks for your commentary. I’m sure that there are many, important parallels to my thinking. As with yours, they add depth and breadth to the original observations. I love the concreteness of shorter and longer lives lending themselves to the urgency of living.

      Barry

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  4. I laughed out loud at your question about missing you. and yes I did. I like this piece on “The Wisdom of Aging Couples”. It struck a chord since I comprise half of an aging couple. Everything from “cognitive bias” to the idea of a kind of death in acceptance, rings true to me. And while you did not mention it, I think most of your thoughts also apply to a couple that meets late in life. Herb and I just met 3.5 years ago. We own up to the sadness that comes from knowing we won’t have a long tenured marriage but we also often joke that had we met in our prime we probably wouldn’t be growing old together. We get to start fresh with each other, each bringing the wisdom earned from past struggles with others. We know how unimportant it is to be right and how important it is to be kind. We know if we want love to guide us we have no choice but to choose collaboration over power, comfort over vanity, gratitude over dissatisfaction, forgiveness over distance. We say we are sorry often and easily and we try not to indulge in distractions but to pay attention.

    Falling in love late in life is similar to falling in love at any age in that you have to build trust by getting to deeply know one another in life’s varying circumstances. However, we have the urgency of time nipping at us and our character formation is nearly set. While the latter fosters obstinacy, the former’s effects are surprisingly beneficial. When fears of past relationship’s failures block our trust, we ask ourselves, “ if not now, when? “. Our “foreshortened time perspective” leads to an abundance of meaning in the simple act of living together. Since we now count our time in large dog years (1 year in the life of a large dog = 9 human years), we look back at our three decades together with awe at how far we have come and how quickly it has passed.

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