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.”
- Fingerman, Hay, & Birditt, 2004; Rook, 1984; 2003
- Charles, Mather & Carstensen, 2003
- Field & Minkler, 1988; Schnittker, 2007
- Hess, Osowski, & LeClerc, 2005
- Story et al., 2007
- Field & Minkler, 1988; Schnittker, 2007