The Comfort of Growing Old Together

Almost 30 years ago I wrote a book with my friend, Michael Glenn.  We called it Couples and it painted a picture of couple development in three stages.  I was 45 when I first hit on this theory and, callow youth that I was, I paid little attention to the experience of older couples.  These days my focus has unavoidably shifted.  I’m eager to share what I’ve been learning.

Then as now, the cultural narrative for couples—implicit prescriptions for success and failure—was almost impossibly demanding.  Historically, marriage was a contractual arrangement, mostly concerned with economic matters, the production of children, and the alliance of extended families.  In modern times, the narrative has grown more personal, including early romance, the need to feel loved and cared for, and a looser, and a more negotiated idea about how the common work would be shared.

In the 1960’s demands on couples, generally with women in the lead, rose exponentially.  Not only should marriage provide for security, safety, and companionship, but also sex, romance, and self actualization for each partner.  Couples should be best friends, confidants, intellectual partners, and personal cheerleaders.  Even as you clean the kitchen or the yard, you should look fetching or dashing.  Even as you change a baby’s diaper, you should concern yourself with your partner’s personal growth.

Each of the three stages of couple development is profoundly influenced by this narrative.  The first, Stage of Expansion and Promise (the honeymoon phase), for instance, hews close to the cultural ideal. Its essential quality is expansiveness: in ourselves; in our partners; in the relationship.

In the early days of relationships, “We feel more capable and more available.  In the enthusiastic gaze of our new partner, we are likely to feel more witty, more charming, and more animated than ever before.  We feel vulnerable, yet strangely strong.  We are expressive, bold, and open.  We are in touch with images and yearnings from childhood as well as with hopes and expectations for our future.  Our unfolding relationship feels encouraging, flexible.  Possibility and potentiality abound.  There is space here for being awkward, for being funny, for starting and stopping, for fumbling about, for being passionate and sexual, and for making discoveries.  Time slows down as we linger with our new partner, but it also rushes by, and we find there are never enough minutes in the day for everything we want to do.”  P 64

The Stage of Contraction and Betrayal follows when couples cannot sustain their expansive promises.  “The Stage of Contraction and Betrayal ruptures the Expansive Contract, threatening both the relationship and our sense of ourselves.  It’s essential quality is contraction: contraction into ourselves, contraction in the picture of our mate, contraction of the relationship as a whole. It is like pulling back into our skin.  We are less impressed with our partners and find them less enamored, less infatuated with us.” P 84  Where Expansion is based on a “virtuous cycle,” where one good thing leads to another, Contraction is characterized by a “vicious” and downward cycle.

In Contraction, the relationship that had opened and transformed us now closes us.  Against our will, old limitations and problems resurface. Reluctantly we conclude that we are more loving and competent with friends and colleague than with our partners.  Where once our relationship brought out our best selves, now it reveals our worst.  The loss is terrible. The contrast between the two stages is agonizing.

In Contraction, couples have three basic options: break up; remain painfully stuck in their struggles; or move into the Stage of Resolution.  Resolution is characterized by a spirit of accommodation, a capacity to see the complexity of things, and an inclination to emphasize affection and partnership over romance and passion.  This is a stage of compromise and successful conflict resolution, emphasizing perspective, balance, stability and shared responsibility.  We feel in control of our lives again.

Now the cycles.  Here’s the irony: The resolution of conflict, the escape from our worst selves, is such a relief that it precipitates another visit to the Stage of Expansion and Promise.  This return is one of life’s great highs.  It’s like falling in love again—and a personal redemption. For a moment—or a little longer—everything seems possible again.

Expansion then lasts for a while, sometimes brief, sometimes longer.  But then a challenging event—the birth of a child, the loss or the beginning of a job, an illness, a big salary raise—jars us and, often, awakens our fears again.  We pull back.  A sense of Betrayal and Contraction sets in.  It seems like we’ve never left.  This place feels like bedrock, the real relationship, while Expansion seems a frothy illusion.  For couples with the stamina and courage to withstand the fall, though, there follows a second move into Resolution. Like being pulled along by powerful ocean currents, we move, once more, into the protective waters of a coastal cove.  And so the cycle goes, never ceasing because life events almost always trigger further revolutions.

The cycles continue through the lives of couples.  From a hundred feet in the air, it is the full cycles, not a single stage that may best define relationships.  Some couples zoom through the cycles.  Others take a leisurely path.  Usually time is short in Expansion and most couples find a Home Base in either Contraction or Resolution, fighting fear or finding friendship and trust.  For those who get stuck in Contraction, divorce, either legal or informal—through distance and endless struggle—is often the answer.  

Learning through the cycles.  As we pass through each stage, there is something essential to learn.  In Expansion, for example, we experience ourselves at our best.  We learn more about our capacity for love, compassion, excitement, energy, empathy, to name a few feelings or skills.  Much as our skeptical psychological culture may protest, there is nothing illusory about these feelings and our capacity to trust and amplify, then integrate them into our character is one of life’s greatest opportunities.

The passage through Contraction and Betrayal offers up a comparable classroom.  There we encounter the fears, anxiety, defensiveness, and rage that burst forth when we feel abandoned or spurned by a loved one.  These feelings are not all of who we are but when they rule, we have little access to our best, and they feel all encompassing.  The way to release their domineering grip is to acknowledge them, to deepen our knowledge of them, to grow more comfortable in our ability to withstand their attack.  There’s courage in this kind of honesty.  There’s learning in our refusal to run or hide.

In each stage of couple relationships the opportunity for greater self awareness and  the ability to transcend our limitations presents itself.  Some of us do not accept this challenge.  In our anxiety, we may choose a more narrowness and rigid path.  Some of us do accept the challenge.  Some of us learn almost in spite of ourselves.   I would say about myself, for example, that the constant cycling has broken down boundaries between what I like and what I know about myself.  I find my internal life to be more fluid.  I find myself less judgmental and more curious.

Extending the cycles into old age.  With time, many, maybe most couples learn to accept the complexity of their individual and shared lives—and make a home in Resolution.  As we move into our later years, individual development increasingly lends itself to this home base.  For instance, researchers tell us that aging people generally develop a “cognitive bias” towards positive, and away from negative, experience.  We literally structure our lives to minimize stress.  If we were to begin again, to find a new partner, we would choose a harmonious companion and avoid people and situations that create disharmony.

We seem to gravitate towards the Stage of Resolution as though drawn along some slow but powerful waterway.  The qualities of Expansion and Contraction have been absorbed into our individual identity and into the workings of the couple relationship. Resolution seems the natural place to be.  The cognitive bias towards positive experience, noted by the researchers, prevails—but without the denial of negativity.  Harmony with our companions becomes the norm, and we deal more efficiently with volcanic flair ups from Contraction.  We choose to be kind to one another, even when we recognize unkind impulses within ourselves.

And this is key: In Resolution, we become skilled practitioners of self-determination.  We understand the complexity of our inner selves and of our relationships and we get to choose—most of the time—which parts of ourselves we bring to the table.  And the sense of agency is delicious.

Here’s a second key:  the more comfortable we grow with our own and our partner’s whole selves, the more spacious the Stage of Resolution becomes.  There is room within the relationship for more of our selves.  Those who learn to nurture the stage of Resolution find deep friendship, with a romantic patina around the edges.

To achieve this space, paradoxically, we often learn to limit or omit some of who we are—there’s no need to insist that our partner accept every one of our warts—in order to create the emotional space capable of including more and more of our selves.

As we age and retire, we spend more and more time with one another, grow more dependent on one another.  At first this kind of closeness can be off-putting, at least, and frightening, at worst. This is one of those disruptive experiences that, even late in life, sets the cycle in motion.  Frequently it awakens the fire of Contraction.  A frightening moment late in life.  A moment we thought—hoped—we had transcended. But it also provides an urgency to move through that fire and back into Resolution, with yet more of ourselves intact.

I want to add one more ironic observation about the way that relational cycles can serve as our teachers.  As the Stage of Resolution grows ever more complex and spacious, it is easier to appreciate our partners in their fullness.  By appreciating the complexity of things, we stop trying to change them.  When we stop trying to change them we can, at last, see who they are, independent of our own needs and anxieties.  This allows us to see one another with a freshness that has been unavailable since the earliest stages of Expansion and Promise.

And here’s the best part: the freshness permits a new kind of intimacy that is simultaneously gentle and intense.



Liberation 101: “Decluttering” Our Minds

These days it has become popular to declutter our homes and offices, an unsentimental drive to make our lives cleaner, sparer, and more efficient.  The same principle, applied more broadly, is particularly apt for older people.

My posse of age mates — old by most standards, but not yet frail or beset with too much forgetfulness — is entering a phase of life that is both fraught and filled with opportunity. It is the moment between acknowledging, with bone-chilling certainty, the finitude of our lives, and actually reaching that end point. Time is short, intensity is high, everything matters.

I’ve been asking myself how to make the most of the time I have left.  There is much to do, but first I have to clear my mind — declutter.  By that I mean, shedding the ideas, the narratives, the philosophies, the solutions to old problems—ways of understanding the world that have guided me for decades but are no longer relevant.  I need to free myself to experience this stage freshly and honestly.

There is nothing new about my desire to shed thoughts and images that interfere with  my ability to do this.  But each period of life seems to require something different.  When I was young and busy with work and family, for instance, I would tell myself to slow down, to step outside the whirlwind.  Sometimes I’d succeed through meditation, journal writing, hiking and running.

My most successful efforts took two forms.  One began in adolescence, when I noticed that imagining a worst-case scenario had a paradoxically calming effect.  For instance, when anxious about an upcoming exam or a tryout for my basketball team, I’d envision myself failing.  From there I’d move to the consequences—more failure, loss of confidence, social ostracism—eventually leading me to flee my home and, finally, into a life of homelessness.  As I dwell for a time on these worst case scenarios, I begin to feel like I can deal with them.  I can get back on my feet.  As I imagine myself rising, my confidence returns.  The exercise acted like a bloodletting.  As the poison drained from my system, I’d grow calm and, suddenly, able to manage whatever problem stood in my way.

Obviously, death is a more fearsome problem than anything I generally conjure up, but it serves very well as a worst-case scenario.  When I’m most frustrated or frightened, imagining the end sometimes frees me from the moment and brings me peace.

A second strategy looks to the future.  For most of my life, the future has been my balm.  Often when I failed, I’d say to myself: I’ll be better.  I’ll learn more, build my skills, better understand opportunities that fit my character.  So I never had to fail completely and I could keep my hopes alive.  In this way I could face the present much more squarely, because I had a future.

But in old age, the future no longer feels like my friend.  Strategies that long served me now seem futile.  They have become clutter that stands between me and the experience of the world I currently live in.  They block the sun, the wind, the beauty and intensity of being alive in the last years of my life.  To live well now, I need to clear away the clutter of old thinking.  Here’s a scan on what it will take.

* To begin, there are the details of life that, when unresolved, leave us with a sustained feeling of uneasiness and take up too much of our mind share.  So, of course, we need to get our finances in order to insure that we can live well enough through this period.  That means determining what is affordable and sticking with it.  We need to write our wills and determine our health care proxies. And yes, we need to consider living arrangements for the time when we cannot wholly care for ourselves.

There are several keys to this process.  The first is to determine what is good enough—not perfect.  The second is to be decisive.  The third is to understand what you can and can’t control—and stop obsessing about things you can’t.  You can’t control the stock market or the value of your home.  You will never find the perfect independent living facility.  Just one that satisfies enough of your needs.  The goal is to free your mind from obsessive “what ifs.”

* Second, we need to let go of that tall pile of activities that we once loved, still miss, and no longer want.  I’m thinking of parenting young children, working passionately with long hours, pushing our bodies to exhaustion in some athletic endeavor.  We may feel nostalgic.  We may be grateful for past experience.  But, to live now, we need to acknowledge that these activities are yesterday’s bounty—and let them go.  There is loss in that acknowledgement, but there is liberation, too.

* Third, let’s loosen our grip on regrets.  They clutter and paralyze our minds.  They serve no useful purpose.  I’m thinking of sins of omission and sins of commission.  Sins of omission include time we’ve not spent with our children; accomplishments that have eluded us; friends we haven’t cultivated and friendships we haven’t deepened; risks that might have been productive that we failed to take; places we haven’t visited.  As the old song goes, “I want to wash them out of my hair.”

Regrets of commission include the many and various ways we have harmed others, particularly those we love and/or esteem – family members, friends, employees and employers, neighbors, colleagues.   We made decisions to follow one course of action that precluded others; we pursued certain jobs and not others, lived in certain neighborhoods and not others, adopted certain religious practices and not others.  We did those things.  But they are past.  Obsessing about them now only weighs us down, saps our energy, imprisons us in the past.

* Finally we have to update our personal identities.  For many of us, the hardest part of growing old is the loss of identity, the loss of being something more than an old man or woman.  Once we were useful.  We were parents, teachers, carpenters, and doctors. Our roles made us feel worthwhile, lending dignity to our lives.  They offered comfortable ways to view ourselves.  The social and work communities we inhabited provided not just a concrete but also a psychological stability.

Who am I, then, when I leave my work and parenting identities behind?  Just me? Often, that doesn’t feel like enough. Or is there some timeless quality that remains me, that doesn’t need social interactions to let me know who I am, to make me feel like I’ve got a stable self? Is that why some of us talk about our legacy, as though we will live after death in people and ideas that we know—and maybe beyond?  Is that why we write memoirs, so people will remember who we really are?  And who we aspired to be?  Might we orient ourselves for the afterlife, find a role and an identity that lives forever?

It is challenging to live without ways to identify ourselves to others and to ourselves.  Yet the day by day quality of retired life lends itself to that sense of absence.  Maintaining an identity might have taken a lot of work.  We would have to correct people’s impressions about us, fit into their impressions—and our own.  But living within a clear cut identity felt secure. Living without clear identifiers is a little like living outside, without the walls that define our human lives.  It feels a little naked.


Where once we were civilized, now we are Adam and Eve, exploring a garden we hardly knew existed.  We are old but the sun is very bright, the colors are vibrant.  We move carefully in territory that is new again.  It is a little frightening but it is also exciting.  This is the possibility that comes when we let go of life’s clutter.