Advice for Long-Married Couples

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

Rekindle the Romance
Reliving times of closeness and love rekindles warm and even passionate feelings.

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.
Most of us are guilty of taking our spouses and marriages for granted; that’s why we’ve woven this piece of solid-gold advice into just about every marital stage. Veteran couples were unanimous in saying that appreciating each other is key to a happy Completion-stage union. “I get so much energy when someone appreciates me,” Michael Hoxsey says. “And yet, it’s so easy to forget to give appreciation or to hold back because you don’t want someone to get a big head. But why hold back — especially with your own spouse? Why not give them a greater sense of their own personal strength and value to you?”

Feeling appreciated can be life-giving. In one study from Finland that tracked 206 women and men ages 80 and older for 10 years, researchers found that those who had the strongest sense of emotional closeness, belonging, and reassurance of their worth were 2.5 times more likely to be alive at the end of the study than those who didn’t receive the same reassurance and nurturing.

Reconnect. You’re spending hours and hours together, but that doesn’t mean you’re pouring out your heart and soul to each other 24/7. (Nor should you!) Setting aside a few minutes each day to focus on each other can keep you feeling close and clued-in to each other’s feelings and plans. “We have a sharing time of about 10 minutes a day to get ‘in touch’ with each other on our thoughts and feelings for the day,” says Barbara Christensen.

Laugh.“Since 1997, I have had nine major operations, and Chris has almost died twice in the last two years due to his diabetes, heart surgeries, and organ shutdown,” Barbara says. “All of these things have put a huge strain on our relationship for weeks at a time. But we use a lot of humor in all of these situations. We do tend to look on the ‘up’ side of life, and we have a great sense of humor about our lives and our circumstances.”

Laughter works even if you weren’t born with a funny bone. “Chris is a natural pessimist, so he has had to teach himself to find the bright side of things,” she adds. “We believe that we can meet any challenge to our relationship by digging deeply and finding a bright side to things happening to us. We use humor constantly.”

Don’t sweat the small stuff. “My husband, Bob, and I have been married 60 years,” says Bette Richter. “At this point in our lives and in our marriage, you don’t fuss about little things.” Adds Bob Richter, “We’ve learned how to listen to one another, to compromise, to let whoever is the best at doing a certain thing be the leader. That’s something we would have argued about in the past. We still have issues — we’re still growing and changing as people and as a couple. But instead of arguing or being stubborn we say: In five years will it really matter? The answer is usually no.”
Take time together to reminisce about wonderful moments in your own history. Reliving times of closeness and love rekindles warm and even passionate feelings. For Joan and Michael Hoxsey, the memory of a mis-mixed honeymoon martini sends them back to the earliest days of their long marriage — and evokes lots of giggles. “Just after we got married, we were supposed to go on a cruise, but we missed the boat,” Michael recalls. “So we stayed in our Seattle apartment for four or five days with really nothing to do. Joan cooked our first meal in our home. It was fried chicken. And she offered me a martini — mixed with four parts vermouth and one part gin instead of the other way around. It was delicious! I’ll never forget it.”

Joan Hoxsey giggles softly as she adds, “I was a 19-year-old bride, and with all the confidence in the world I handed him this martini. All I knew was that it had to have an olive in it. After all, I’ve seen it in the movies! That memory really does take us back to the beginning of our marriage!”

Adapt to new limitations — but hang on to physical intimacy. Bob and Bette Richters admit that a variety of health problems have intruded on their lifestyle in recent years. “Between the two of us, we made 17 trips to doctors, clinics, and drugstores in the past month alone,” Bob notes. “Things come along when you’re older, including the fact that I fell out of a tree I was trimming recently and fractured three vertebrae.”

Bob’s injuries have made it difficult for him to walk long distances. “My knees bend just fine, but my legs just won’t keep going,” he says. But that hasn’t ended sexual intimacy, just changed it a little. “You learn to adjust your intimate relationship,” he says. “We’re still sexually active. There have been brief times when we weren’t due to illness, but we always resume. If intimacy has been good all along, if you’ve worked to keep it going, then you don’t have to give it up. Lots of older people do, but we don’t think they really have to. It makes such a difference.” Adds Bette, “I think good sex is a strong tie for a marriage. And so is affection. We kiss and hug frequently. When one of us is leaving the house, it’s almost a law that we kiss. We’ll kiss when we pass each other in the hallway. And we scratch each other’s backs. We’re affectionate in many different ways.”

Barbara and Chris Christensen keep the romance in their lives by cuddling, hugging, giving each other shoulder and neck rubs, planning little surprises, and “always kissing hello and goodbye,” Barbara says. “Due to Chris’s medications and physical ailments, we have not been able to have the intimacy that is such an important part of a loving relationship, but we’ve found ways to make up for it. We know of many couples in our age group who stay married even though they can no longer have a sexual relationship, and they grow distant from each other as they live more or less like brothers and sisters. We don’t want that.”

Sexual intimacy in long-married couples isn’t unusual — it’s just that nobody says much about it, notes Dr. Treat. “The whole issue of sex and libido is not talked about in older age,” he says. “We certainly know that many older couples in their 70s and 80s are sexually active and content. Their sexuality may have changed from intercourse to touching, kissing, holding, but there are many, many couples that have very alive, very meaningful sexual relationships.”

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