Happy, long-married couples interviewed for The Seven Stages of Marriage weren’t shy about reporting that they didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything — even after 40, 50, or even 60 years together. And they didn’t expect to! Despite their shared history, partners said they felt they were still changing and learning new things about themselves and each other.
“We’re not the same two people who got married as a 19-year-old and a 20-year-old,” says Hollie Atkinson, married to Janell. “We’re still growing and getting to know each other all over again. The surprising thing is, when we change as individuals, things that we thought we’d conquered and put to bed years ago as a couple can come back again. You deal with it, learn from it, and move on.”
Michael Hoxsey of Cincinnati, who has been married for 48 years, told us he thinks spouses should always see themselves as “engaged” to each other rather than settled down once and for all. “Throughout your life and your marriage, you keep on resolving the questions ‘Who am I?,’ ‘Who are you?,’ and ‘Who are we?’ The engagement period, when a couple is creating their whole reality, should never end,” he says. “Marriage shouldn’t stop your individual growth or your growth as a couple.”
As his wife, Joan, sees it, “Marriage is a sacrament. We marry each other every day. It’s an ongoing experience, not something that happened once.” How to deal with the inevitable conflicts of daily life? The fundamentals still hold true, says Barbara Christensen of Newport News, Virginia, who’s been married to husband, Chris, for 56 years. “We have genuine respect for each other. Sometimes we do become irritated or angry at each other, of course, but we have learned to use the tools we learned long ago. We talk it out and become one again,” she says. “We compromise. We agree to disagree. We honor the other’s right to their own opinion. We decided long ago that divorce is not an option for us. So we work every day on our relationship.”
After retirement, Completion-stage couples are often surprised to discover that indeed, they don’t know all there is to know about each other. You may discover that the two of you have different plans and dreams for this important time of life. Or that you have very different ideas about how to run the household. Or that your marriage needs a tune-up in order to fulfill long-hidden needs and desires. These tips and exercises can help you nurture a growing marriage now:
Open up a little more. Moving into the “third age” of your life and your marriage can stir up a rainbow of feelings, from euphoria and relief to fear and anxiety. Don’t bottle them up!
“A couple becomes more intimate when partners take risks,” says Stephen Treat, D.Min., the director and CEO of the Philadelphia-based Council for Relationships and an instructor in psychiatry and human behavior at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. “That requires being emotionally honest and making the relationship safe for taking those risks. When you’re both emotionally honest, you don’t collect grudges and negative feelings over the years that fester and fester. You stay current with each other and connected.”
Sharing your feelings and thoughts can be especially important if retirement leaves you feeling as if you’ve lost your identity and sense of purpose — a risk for anyone who felt strongly invested in a career or demanding job. Losing your work identity can lead to feelings of depression. What helps: A spouse who understands that this loss is big, a marriage that lets you express your feelings, and a plan for finding new purpose. If depression persists, consider seeing a counselor or therapist.